The U.S. Department of Education (ED) has issued two new “Dear Colleague” letters following the release of a report by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. This guidance is intended to address some of the recent issues surrounding community and police relations as well as public safety.
In a letter to institutions of higher education, ED calls on administrators to conduct a self-assessment to determine the need for organizational change to address mistrust or discrimination. The letter also notes that federal civil rights obligations apply to all educational institutions and other entities receiving federal funding, and to their police departments. This means, ED says, that campus police are subject to nondiscrimination statutes, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, and the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability.
In a similar letter to K-12 school leaders, Secretary of Education John King discusses the role of school-based law enforcement officers, commonly known as school resource officers or SROs. While the letter acknowledges that these officers can help provide a safe learning environment and build trust, King also expresses concern about unnecessary citations or arrests and potential violations of civil rights. The role and need for SROs is a local decision that must be made in consultation with law enforcement as well as “school leaders, educators, families, students, and community and civil rights stakeholders,” King says. But those SROs should be incorporated “responsibly” and thoughtfully into school environments which are designed to help minimize the need for citations and arrests.
ED and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) are also forming a new resource to help States and districts improve policies and practices. This resource, known as the Safe, School-based Enforcement through Collaboration, Understanding, and Respect (SECURe) offers rubrics to help review and revise existing policies, as well as “common-sense action steps” to improve school safety. Notably, King points out, this rubric says that SRO’s should “ensure safety and security but should not administer discipline” in school environments. The letter also encourages the use of multi-tiered behavioral support frameworks like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.
“As educators,” King notes, “we are bound by a sacred trust to safeguard the well-being, safety, and extraordinary potential of the children and youth within the communities we serve. In order to fulfill this trust, it is incumbent upon us to abolish the use of unnecessary school discipline practices that could deny students the opportunity to mature into capable, healthy, and responsible adults.”