Controversy continues to swirl over a series of violent incidents that have occurred in the Woodland Hills School District, just outside Pittsburgh. These incidents involve allegations of violence directed against students by the school’s principal and by school-based law enforcement officials. Students have been injured. In one recent case, one of these law enforcement officials allegedly punched a student in the face and nearly knocked the student’s tooth out. An incident last year led to disciplinary action against the principal, but the principal remains at the school and was even hired in April as the school’s varsity football coach.
These incidents and the responses so far of administrators and the justice system raise fundamental questions about the role of police in our schools. They provide a textbook example of what is wrong with the way that many districts use police: lack of accountability for officers' actions; inappropriate use of force; failure to respect (and protect) the rights of students; and proposed solutions that may make matters worse.
Woodland Hills’ school-based law enforcement officials are known as “school resource officers” or SROs. These are sworn police officers on loan from a neighboring law enforcement agency as part of a contract between the district and the police department. But who is in control when SROs patrol the hallways? What do the school’s administrators do to protect students from harmful contact with local police? What responsibility does the school administration have when things go wrong between police and students, especially when there is unnecessary physical harm?
Often, when controversies arise, police say: Don’t blame us. We’re here because the school asked us to be here. Educators say: We cannot control what police do in our school — that’s a law enforcement matter.
Harold Jordan is senior policy advocate, ACLU of Pennsylvania, and serves as co-chair of the Notebook's board of directors.