Fully Resourced Schools: Thoughts on School Resource Officers and Positive Youth Development

November 10, 2015

A little more than two weeks ago, a video depicting an altercation between a school resource officer and a high school student went viral as millions watched the footage of an unarmed female student at Spring Valley High (South Carolina) being pulled from her desk, flipped backward, and dragged across the room. For nearly everyone who saw it, the video was jarring.

As a youth development professional, my thoughts went to wanting to understand the steps and decision points that preceded this troublesome event. I find it difficult – unacceptable even – to believe that the incident could not have been averted. In my mind's eye, so many alternative steps could have been taken along the way:

  • Millions watched the video but few had additional context – that student had recently been placed in foster care and was new to the school. Was the school fully resourced to be aware of and help the student deal with the trauma of surviving abuse or neglect and then being removed from her family, as well as the adjustment to a new school environment?
  • Were all staff adequately trained to recognize and attend to trauma, and redirect negative behaviors that are disruptive to other students' learning?
  • Did the school have a social worker or youth worker available to help both the officer and the student navigate this interaction? Was one even consulted? Could a social worker have been sent to the classroom instead?
  • Was the situation approached with the most clearly focused developmental lens possible?

School resource officers have become an increasingly common strategy for helping schools manage the complex balancing act of educating students while also ensuring a fundamental level of safety – both physical and psychological. Seven-five percent of schools with enrollments over 1000 employ school resource officers at least one day a week. Trained in law enforcement, their role is to enhance a school's capacity to create safe environments so that students can engage academically.

Yet the viral video suggests that, more often than not, schools are inadequately resourced for managing the full range of students' developmental needs. If we are going to use the term "school resource officer," can we develop a more robust understanding of what it means for schools to be fully resourced?

Now, I am not Pollyanna enough to suggest that law enforcement should never intervene in school situations. But I am both troubled and perplexed by how often we seem to be landing here. Can our definition of the "resources" that schools need expand to approaches that might have helped both the student and the officer co-create a more balanced solution, and helped the student to avoid an all-too-common trap – sometimes dubbed the school-to-prison pipeline, characterized not only by such interactions as depicted on the video, but the disruption of the schooling experience through suspensions, expulsions and other sanctions?

The majority of interactions between staff and students do not result in such a controversial and highly charged system response. But the data suggest that a thousand milder – but still damaging – variations on this extreme occur with far too much regularity. This is disproportionately the case for certain student populations. African American girls, in particular, are suspended at six times the rate of their white female counterparts. This fact alone personalizes the Spring Valley incident for me, a black woman, and makes me wonder why, collectively, we aren't outraged enough to demand that we do better.

What might "better" look like? In a world where it is possible for heavily punitive and exclusionary policies to replace "common sense" youth development problem-solving, as demonstrated in such national headline cases as the police being called to investigate a student for brandishing a homemade clock, or a pre-adolescent girl facing criminal charges for scrawling the word "hi" on a locker, both experience and research give us a clear picture of "better." Much of that research leads right to the doors of out-of-school time (OST) programs.

High-quality OST programs employ a set of practices that adults can put in place that increase the chance that young people develop the skill sets and mindsets to manage life's challenges and be ready for opportunities. As importantly, these practices give adults a consistent approach for working with youth, including those youth who, in the moment, are more challenging to engage. Such consistent approaches are important for ensuring that we do not rely too heavily on force of personality, or "having a knack for working with kids," especially in situations where young people do not immediately respond in the ways we would like (after all, the school resource officer in question had a rapport with at least some youth at the school, having also served as an assistant football coach).

The Readiness Project is a campaign headed by the Forum for Youth Investment to spotlight the common traps, like those above that deter young people from success. The Project further seeks to inspire cross-system commitments to nurture and incentivize the practices that support young people to effective face both challenges and opportunities.

The Readiness Project outlines what it calls "readiness practices" – practices that are consistent with what many researchers and practitioners call positive youth development. This approach is widely used in out-of-school programs, but can work in any structured setting, including schools. These practices include approaches for organizing environments, people, experiences, as well as time and space to optimize relationships, build on youth strengths, challenge and engage while encouraging agency and choice, and allow time (and, sometimes, second chances) to reflect and refine those choices (this is just a partial list of positive youth development practices).

How well are most schools able to consistently support these practices on a daily basis for all youth? How supported are these practices in policies and structures, and in their systemic responses? How supported are a range of staff, from teachers to administrators to resource officers, in fully engaging these practices as the first course of "the way we do business" with students?

Fully resourced doesn't have to mean more school resource officers, and "school resource officer" doesn't have to solely mean law enforcement. And even if it does refer to individuals trained as law enforcement officers who have since been placed in schools, there is no reason why their training can't also include a youth development framework. The main issue is not resource officers versus youth workers, but rather that all individuals charged with supporting children and youth in a structured environment are given the training and support toward the kind of developmental framework and bias for the "readiness practices" that can support young people wherever we engage them.


AliciaAlicia Wilson-Ahlstrom is the Senior Program Manager for Research and Development at the Forum for Youth Investment
 
This article originally appeared on Boost Collaborative. It is reprinted here with permission. 
 
Alicia Wilson-Ahlstrom

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Some good thoughts you have posted here, i agree with few and appreciate your positive mind set.
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How well are most schools able to consistently support these practices on a daily basis for all youth? How supported are these practices in policies and structures, and in their systemic responses? How supported are a range of staff, from teachers to administrators to resource officers, in fully engaging these practices as the first course of "the way we do business" with students?
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Such consistent approaches are important for ensuring that we do not rely too heavily on force of personality, or "having a knack for working with kids," especially in situations where young people do not immediately respond in the ways we would like (after all, the school resource officer in question had a rapport with at least some youth at the school, having also served as an assistant football coach).

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