The recent and disturbing video footage of a student being aggressively handcuffed at Hanes Magnet Middle School is sparking a much-needed and overdue conversation in our community about the relationship between our schools and our justice system. My purpose is not to focus on blaming any one group but on how we can begin to develop meaningful dialogue among the schools and justice system.
We may not know the exact details of what happened, how the situation escalated, who-did-what-first. But the discussion needs to extend beyond what occurred in a couple minutes of interaction between a school resource officer and a student into a look at what’s happening in our schools that is creating a space for this interaction to escalate in the first place.
The role of the SRO — as told to me by an SRO at another school — is “to investigate crimes that happen on campus.” Often there is overlap between what could be interpreted as a crime and behavior that is unacceptable yet developmentally appropriate for youth learning to handle the rush of emotions that comes with adolescence. We shouldn’t need a police officer to handle these situations — all school staff should be equipped with training to respond appropriately to these situations. The main reason that this incident escalated into an arrestable offense was the presence of the police officer. This is how the school-to-prison-pipeline works.
There are many great SROs who let the school handle school-related situations. But we don’t have consistency among the SROs in Forsyth County, in part because our SROs come from three different agencies (Forsyth County Sheriff’s Department, Winston-Salem Police Department and Kernersville Police Department) with different guidelines and different systems for reporting. There is a national initiative called a School-Justice Partnership, which has been promoted through our state district court system, intended to reduce the school-to-prison-pipeline. With a School-Justice Partnership, the courts, the school district and law enforcement agencies develop a collaborative agreement to handle these issues within the schools. It’s a local agreement with all the details decided locally, and the main emphasis is to establish an official understanding so that even when a student commits an arrestable offense, he/she should not be arrested if there is a school process that can address the situation. The plan also includes working out exactly what school processes are available to serve as an alternative response, so students will still be held responsible for their actions.
Restorative justice programs and training can be significant resources for schools in developing alternative responses and even preventative approaches. Triad Restorative Justice is urging our local courts, school district and law enforcement agencies to start a discussion toward developing a School-Justice Partnership. We are also advocating for the community to have a significant voice in those discussions, as well as have a plan to look explicitly and intentionally at how race plays a role in the judicial and disciplinary processes.
We also need to consider the climate of our schools. Schools should be places where the students trust the adults in the building, so when someone asks a simple question, such as “where are you going?” students feel safe to answer that question. That type of supportive culture comes when the adults see the importance of building relationships with the students — not simply individual teachers building relationships, because there are a lot of great teachers doing that — but having a school-wide value from the top down that understands that relationships are the foundation for learning and for becoming productive members of our society. It has to start with the adults in the building. Respect should be modeled by those in charge, not demanded absolutely. In the restorative justice world, we use the term “restorative practices” to talk about developing this type of school culture. There are many ways a school can implement restorative practices throughout the school.
My heart goes out this young girl. I can imagine that it will be difficult for her to see school as a positive space for learning now. I was so saddened to see this happening in our own district. I hope our community can take this incident beyond expressing rage (which absolutely needs to happen) to a place where we can take action that makes a difference in how we are doing things county-wide, for all our students. One incident is too many — we need to start working on prevention now.