Do deputies in schools help or harm students? A sheriff and a DA debate.

Durham’s new DA shares her view on school resource officers

"For some kids, school resource officers mean the opposite of safety," Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry said during an interview on Tuesday, May 21, the morning after participating in a forum on the issue.
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"For some kids, school resource officers mean the opposite of safety," Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry said during an interview on Tuesday, May 21, the morning after participating in a forum on the issue.

As Durham County’s new sheriff considers the role his deputies should play in schools, he joined a debate this week about whether school resource officers help or harm students.

On one side were Sheriff Clarence Birkhead, who took office Dec. 1 after promising progressive reform, and Pascal Mubenga, superintendent of Durham Public Schools.

The SRO program should be revamped, Birkhead said, but school shootings nationwide have made having officers in schools necessary.

“School safety is the No. 1 priority of the SRO program,” he said.

On the other side was new Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry, who won election last fall after pledging reform of her own.

“I have been honest that I am not a fan of SROs in school,” she said.

“I think there are more challenges than benefits in law enforcement interacting with children in school,” she said.

The three leaders spoke at a Monday night forum sponsored by groups including the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the Youth Justice Project, a part of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

Durham Public Schools, with more than 32,000 students, has one of the highest crime rates among North Carolina school districts, The News & Observer has reported.

According to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, Durham high schools had nearly 25 crimes per 1,000 students in 2016-17, roughly twice the state average.

School to prison pipeline

In the 2019-20 school year, there will be 22 SROs in 17 of Durham’s schools.

Critics say SROs feed the school-to-prison pipeline, sending poor and minority children into the criminal justice system. Supporters say SROs help maintain day-to-day safety and must be present in case of a shooter on campus.

Capt. Kim Lane, supervisor of the SRO program, said people don’t know how often officers have stopped situations before something tragic happened.

Deputy Joseph Costa, an SRO at Jordan High School, said deputies’ relationships with students have kept threats from escalating.

“We are not just offensive, we are defensive,” he said. “We are having to do lots of different things. It is not just for the fights that we are there for.”

Criminal complaints down

Even before Birkhead took office, the Sheriff’s Office had reduced the share of students being referred from schools to the criminal justice system.

Information provided by the Durham County Juvenile Crime Prevention Council shows 403 criminal complaints against juveniles in 2016-17, The News & Observer reported. About 28 percent were school-based, down from 2013, when 39 percent were school-based.

At Monday’s forum, Birkhead said his deputies are in school to support students, faculty and staff, and officials have to figure out ways to make sure those interactions are positive.

In 2017, school resource officers responded to about 3,500 calls, which ranged from a student feeling lightheaded to serious incidents, The News & Observer reported.

The officers investigated 695 criminal acts, with 543 cases referred back to school administrators to handle. More than 150 were referred to programs, such as the Misdemeanor Diversion Program, which lets first-time offenders under 21 avoid a formal charge.

Twenty-four offenses resulted in an arrest of youth ages 16 and older, and 32 resulted in juvenile petitions, a criminal charge for youth 15 and younger.

One issue that officials need to address, Birkhead said, is consistency, as a student may be charged at one school for fighting and not at another.

Discipline issues

Deberry, who has three children in Durham Public Schools, said safety is of “the utmost importance” but that SROs are still law enforcement officers.

“I think for some kids, school resource officers are the opposite of safety,” she said in a Tuesday interview.

“I don’t want to sound like an old fogey, and say there weren’t school resource officers when I was in school, but there weren’t school resource officers when I was in school,” Deberry said. “Discipline issues, for the most part, were handled by the administrative staff of the school.”

Community members at the forum suggested training deputies on youth development, not having them wear uniforms, and scaling back SROs while adding mental health counselors.

Mubenga was skeptical about taking SROs out of schools completely.

“I want to be realistic,” he said. “I don’t want us to choose one versus the other.”

Shortly after Deberry was elected, she said her office would stop accepting criminal referrals from schools. Instead she would refer the cases to community resources, such as Teen Court.

Mubenga reached out to her after that statement, he said, and they had a “good conversation.”

Mubenga said he asked whether she would prosecute “if a student in middle school raped another student.”

“The answer is yes,” Deberry said, but those aren’t the kind of cases she said she is seeing referred from schools.

“They mostly look like fighting,” she said. “They mostly look like kids who are disruptive and have been disruptive for some time. Misdemeanor assault. Misdemeanor possession.”

Birkhead is reviewing an SRO agreement between the Sheriff’s Office and Durham Public Schools that he hopes to finalize before the 2019-20 school year.

“As we work on the agreement, continuing to have an open dialogue at community events is critically important,” he said.

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Virginia Bridges covers criminal justice in Orange and Durham counties for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer. She has worked for newspapers for more than 15 years. In 2017, the N.C. Press Association awarded her first place for beat feature reporting. The N.C. State Bar Association awarded her the 2018 Media & Law Award for Best Series.