Return to Headlines

8/18/19 Should student arrests be left up to principals?

Should student arrests be left up to principals?
Data reveal inconsistent discipline policies across ABSS
By Jessica Williams, The Times-News 8/18/19    
Reprinted with permission.

Some Alamance-Burlington schools see more police activity than others, and not for the reasons you may expect.

At the Tuesday, Aug. 13, meeting of the board of education, Brandon Mays with the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office and Dalton Majors with the Burlington Police Department presented data on what School Resource Officers are responding to at ABSS middle and high schools.

Here’s a breakdown:

Alamance County Sheriff’s Office

The Sheriff’s Office provides SROs for six ABSS schools: Western Alamance Middle, Woodlawn Middle, Southern Middle, Western Alamance High School, Eastern Alamance High School and Southern Alamance High School.

During the 2017-18 school year, ACSO responded to a total of 1,529 calls for service at these schools. In 2018-19, they responded to a total of 1,519 calls.

Not all calls for service are related to crimes. For example, the school may call the SRO to drive a student home.

Among the calls for service that were related to criminal activity — misdemeanor charges, felony charges, possession of a weapon, disorderly conduct, assault, sexual battery, communicating threats, larceny and drug incidents — misdemeanors, disorderly conduct and assault were the most common.

Southern Alamance High School was no. 1 in all three categories in 2018-19, but Mays was quick to point out the data is skewed by a number of factors.

“I don’t want anybody to say, ‘OK, well suchand-such school had 150 calls for service and such-and-such school had 275 so apparently the school with 150 is a whole lot better a school,’” Mays said. “That is not the case at all and I want to clear that up to make sure nobody draws that conclusion or makes that assumption based on this data. A lot of different factors play into how these numbers are generated.”

For one, the data doesn’t account for differences in student population.

Southern is the most overcrowded high school in the school system, with over 1,500 students, so it makes sense that they would lead in most categories.

Second, administrative teams handle incidents differently.

Schools are required to call the police in the case of “mandatory reportable offenses,” like possession of a controlled substance, serious assault and rape. Some administrative teams will only involve the police if it’s mandatory. Others will involve the police for less serious offenses.

This varies from school to school, so even schools that have similar student populations could have vastly different numbers.

What also varies is the relationship between the SRO and the students. If a student trusts their SRO, they’re more likely to report a crime, which would cause the number of calls to go up.

“The kids know what’s going on,” Mays said. “They will tell you, if you’ve built up a rapport and they have that foundation of trust in you, they will tell you.”

Burlington Police Department

Burlington Police provides SROs for five ABSS schools: Broadview Middle, Turrentine Middle, Cummings High School, Williams High School and the Career and Technical Education Center.

Disorderly conduct, motor vehicle theft, intimidation and simple assault represented the highest number of crime-related calls at the high school level in 2018-19.

Majors said they’ve seen a string of juvenile car thefts. Both Cummings and Williams had three last year.

At the middle school level, the most common crimes were “all other offenses,” simple assault and weapons violations. “All other offenses” are “small, petty, misdemeanor crimes,” Majors said.

BPD also broke the data down by race.

In Burlington, 41 percent of the student population is black, 29 percent is Hispanic, 24 percent is white and one percent is Asian.

But 55 percent of students arrested in Burlington are black, 34 percent are white, nine percent are Hispanic and two percent are Asian.

“In the Burlington Police Department, we track a number of different things that involve our SROs. Disproportionate minority contact is one of those things,” Majors said. “We want to make sure that we’re not having a disproportionate impact on youth of color, so we look at that.”

He added, between 2017-18 and 2018-19, BPD reduced that disparity by having conversations with SROs and making them aware of the issue.

“We know there’s a school-to-prison pipeline and we try to cut that off at the head,” he said.

Board reactions

Board member Patsy Simpson said she was pleasantly surprised at the data, especially looking at the amount of drug-related incidents.

Only 41 students were charged with possession of a controlled substance in 2018-19 — across both ACSO and BPD schools.

“With 22,000 students that we serve … I’m shocked that it’s as good as it is, because we keep hearing, ‘Oh, it’s so bad in the schools. Discipline is your No. 1 problem,’” Simpson said. “This is not indicating that at all and it didn’t come from us, so … I think we’re doing a pretty good job overall.”

Mays told the board ACSO’s biggest challenge has been catching students with vape pens. They can be disguised to look like ink pens, flash drives, highlighters and more, and students are putting more than just nicotine products in them.

Some are vaping THC oil, which can contain as much as 68 percent more THC than marijuana. It’s getting students so high they end up shaking on the floor.

“We had seven or eight that went to the hospital last year,” Mays said. “Two were in the same day at the same high school. … The intensity or the strength of that liquid is unbelievable.”

In February, ABSS Chief Secondary Officer Revonda Johnson briefed the board on how the school system is training teachers to identify these devices.

Simpson did add they should have invited the Graham Police Department to present data on the Graham attendance zone, but Superintendent Bruce Benson explained they invited ACSO and BPD because they serve the most schools in the district.

“Is there anything else that we as a board could do to assist your SROs, whether that’s in the county or in the city?” Simpson asked.

Both Mays and Majors agreed it would be beneficial for ABSS to have a system-wide discipline policy instead of leaving it up to individual administrators.

“I think each principal should be operating [consistently] with discipline and when to alert law enforcement,” Majors said.

While the board has facilitated meetings between SROs and principals in the past, Benson agreed they need to take it a step farther.

“There’s a disproportionate distribution of disciplinary consequences that are occurring across our schools, which we are going to address through our behavioral core going into this next school year,” Benson said. “So it is about relationships. It’s about relationships between administrators and our SROs. It’s about relationships between our SROs, our administrators and our students, and we have work to do to increase that variance.”