by Daniel DeWoskin
Editor’s Note: This article is an opinion editorial and does not reflect the opinions of the DeKalb Bar Association. The author, Daniel DeWoskin, was trained and certified by the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training (P.O.S.T.) as a law enforcement officer, and maintains this certification today. He also worked for some time in a law enforcement capacity prior to his admission to the Georgia Bar. He is now an attorney practicing in DeKalb County.
Due to the increase of school shootings in recent years, many schools have resorted to bringing on-duty police officers into the school in an effort to increase safety measures. The question remains, however, whether the presence of police officers actually increases safety or even just the perception of safety. There is also a question as to whether the presence of more officers just increases the statistics crime or dangers present in schools.
Based on a recent incident, I tend to think that the increased presence of police officers simply creates more “crime.” Let me explain.
Recently, I was hired to represent a young woman in high-school who was charged with public indecency. This young woman, a senior, was an active and gifted student who participated in several after-school programs at the school. One day, she and her boyfriend, a junior, were waiting for her boyfriend’s brother to pick them up from school. In the bleachers, about thirty yards from where the marching band was practicing, the young woman was sitting with her leg propped up on her boyfriend’s legs. Despite the fact that both students were fully-clothed, in broad daylight and plain sight at 5:15 p.m., a visiting coach who was walking by the bleachers made a report to school administration that the students were engaged in sexual intercourse in the stands.
Once the report was made, the band teacher was alerted and walked over to the students. He asked what they were doing and was told that they were waiting for a ride home that was on its way. He asked if they were having sex, to which they replied, “No,” and seemed puzzled at the question. The band teacher did not observe the students in any compromising position and did not report that anything appeared at all unusual during his encounter with them.
The report of the incident made its way to the assistant principal, who called in both students and their parents for a meeting. Again, both students denied engaging in any sexual or otherwise lewd behavior. The assistant principal, after discussing the matter with the students and their parents and conducting necessary inquiries, determined that the incident did not merit an in-school suspension, but did admonish the students to be more discrete with any shows of affection at school, no matter how harmless or innocent. The situation was handled timely and effectively by the school administration.
Then, the situation somehow went awry.
The incident was also reported to the school resource officer, a Peace Officer Standards and Training (P.O.S.T.) certified officer. After receiving the report, the officer swore out a warrant for the arrests of both the students for public indecency. It does not appear that the officer spoke to the students, their parents, or the administration before taking this action. My client, the high-school senior, was notified of the warrant and told that she had 48 hours to turn herself into authorities at the jail. Her mother drove her to the county jail, where the high-school senior was booked, processed, photographed, and fingerprinted. Her case went to the State Court where she pled not guilty and demanded a jury trial. The prosecutor was willing to dismiss the case, but only if the young woman did 40-hours of community service.
Meanwhile, the case of her boyfriend, a 16-year-old junior, was handled as a juvenile matter and, upon receipt of the case and review of the evidence, the court threw the boyfriend’s case out in its entirety.
To this day, I cannot explain why the school resource officer took it upon himself to seek the warrants. I do not know if it was malfeasance or boredom, but I can say that it resulted in a waste of taxpayer dollars and detrimentally affected the future of an accomplished young woman. It is incidents such as this that make me wonder whether the increased presence of police officers simply creates more “crime.”
Every wrongful infraction does not necessitate the involvement of the criminal justice system or the juvenile justice system. In the event that a police officer is in the school, such occurrences are easily blown out of proportion and can bring about unintentional and detrimental outcomes. Although many of us are aware of the problems that bullies in schools can cause, it is my opinion that we do not need police officers in schools criminalizing public displays of affection.
By no means am I suggesting that criminal infractions cannot take place in schools by virtue of the setting itself. Certainly, there are some occurrences that may rise to that level, such as physical violence, or perhaps even the recent recording of a sex act in a Cherokee County high school. These are times when it is more appropriate to bring in law enforcement, but in my opinion, it does not mean that we should have a law enforcement officer present in every school at all times.
Another problem I believe is presented by an ever-present school resource officer is where the line of officer discretion is placed. There are politics and policies that vary in school administrations, which may differ from the policies of a police department. We would expect that the school resource officer is trained as to how school-related policing differs from that of other community policing, but how would we know if the officer feels a need to search out “crime” to prove that he or she is a necessary component of a safe school? Just how is a school resource officer’s performance evaluated?
My high school student client who was charged with indecency was not a suspect in a criminal investigation; rather she was the victim of an officer who disregarded the actions and decisions of school officials and took matters in his own hand. This officer took steps that may have had severe and unwarranted consequences for a young woman just about to graduate high-school. I am acutely aware of the inexplicable and unpredictable dangers that our schoolchildren face today with extreme bullying, lack of impulse control, easy access to firearms, and the host of other factors that have led to more and more reports of school violence. But, in my opinion, this does not mean that all or any of these events could or would be prevented by the mere presence of a police officer in every school.
In my opinion, we as parents, as voters, and as members of the community should look at the big picture of where we spend our resources and consider what the return is on our investment. I believe we should consider what we think are the biggest risks facing schoolchildren and take discernible steps to address those risks. For instance, the presence of a police officer will not deter a bully, but vigilance, topic-focused education, and other programming might do just that. I fear that in the near future, our desire for a false, perceived safety that comes from seeing more people in uniform around us will mean that we will have fewer and fewer resources for actual education.
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