New policy for Wisconsin Rapids school resource officers prohibits ‘hands-on’ for discipline, property damage

Published: Aug. 31, 2020 at 6:32 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - School resource officers in the Wisconsin Rapids School District are prohibited from going “hands-on” with students for disciplinary or property damage purposes in the coming school year, according to new policies outlined by the Wisconsin Rapids police chief. The policies are designed to clarify officers’ roles in schools and provide clear boundaries between what police can be asked to physically do.

Under the new policies, physical intervention is still allowed to protect students from themselves or others, or in situations where behavior has turned criminal. But if school administrators aren’t allowed to lay their hands on a child to stop property damage or noncriminal bad behavior, chief Erman Blevins explained, they can’t ask an officer to do it for them.

“For example, when a child is refusing to get up off the floor, a police officer is not going to take that child up for a teacher who’s prohibited from doing it for school policy,” Blevins said. “If the school district can’t do it, why would the police?” That extends to property damage--the policy explicitly says that until a student’s behavior is about to harm themselves or others, officers will not intervene if a child is “being unruly, tearing things off the walls, and is about to throw a laptop.”

The policy was made in agreement with the Wisconsin Rapids School District superintendent Craig Broeren, who says officers going hands-on with students is already uncommon. Under Wisconsin Rapids school policy, school officials are authorized to use “reasonable or necessary force” for self-defense, protecting the safety of the student or others, and protection of physical property.

“What they’re involved in primarily with kids, are those kids that may have chosen to break the law or there’s a potential danger,” Broeren said, adding that the policy is “delineating and ensuring that our administrators and the school personnel know that they’re not to be used as a disciplinary measure.”

The motivation behind putting the prohibitions in place is the idea of “mission creep” that has occurred over the years, Blevins explained in the policy memo. “That has resulted in SRO’s, and the Police [sic] in general, getting involved in use of force situations over school discipline issues.”

The policy is in line with existing recommendations from Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction, which outlines that school resource officers “to the extent possible” should not be used in disciplinary scenarios. While the DPI’s best practices documentation does not outline hands-on policies specifically, it outlines guidelines for school resource officer programs that have clear delineations between disciplinary and illegal conduct, the first of which should be handled by school administrators. 2014 guidance from the U.S. Department of Education has similar recommendations, saying that educators rather than officers should be handling discipline issues and that police in schools should be “focused on protecting the physical safety of the school or preventing the criminal conduct of persons other than students, while reducing inappropriate student referrals to law enforcement.”

Criticism of the role that police play in schools has increased since George Floyd’s death in May, with the Madison School District the most recent high profile district to end the role of school resource officers in their schools, joining other cities like Minneapolis. Critics say police presence in schools can promote criminalization of behavior issues, more suspensions and arrests, and disproportionately affect students of color. Advocates of the school resource officer model view it as one of the most visible forms of community policing, designed to promote outreach among students and reinforce relationships, while providing protection during incidents like school shootings.

“We want our officers to be in the schools,” Blevins said. “They’re there for a reason; that’s the safety of the students and also the outreach and education.” For him, putting these policies in writing is a way to safeguard police presence in schools from encroaching on a role they’re not designed to fill.

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