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Youth Advocates Demand Better Training for School Cops


  • Alexander Raths /
A new report on Texas' thriving school-to-prison pipeline shows just how infiltrated state public schools are with police officers — and how quick they are to arrest or use force against students. Nearly a third of Texas' juvenile arrests in 2015 took place on school campuses, and San Antonio ISD was only second to Austin in amassing the majority of them.

The report, a collaboration by Texas Appleseed and Texans Care for Children, asks state lawmakers to expand training for police officers working on school campuses across the state — especially those oblivious to youth with mental health and racial biases.

This next legislative session, however, may feature a bill aiming to do exactly the opposite.

On Dec. 8, Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) pre-filed a bill that would require all 9th grade students in public schools to take a class on "interacting with law enforcement." The idea, more or less, is to teach teenagers how to behave when interacting with police officers before they get into trouble — and to understand the laws around questioning and detention.

In a press release, Whitmire said the bill "is an important part of our efforts to reduce escalated and too often deadly encounters between officers and civilians."

Of course, Whitmire's bill would also teach students their rights when interacting with police,and how to file a complaint against them. But there's no mention of police training.

"In general, 'know your rights' presentations are helpful to youth, but we should never create a system when all expectations to have a respectful interaction with law enforcement fall on students," said Morgan Craven, director of Appleseed's school-to-prison pipeline project. "Police officers, as trained adults, have a responsibility to treat kids with respect and responsibility."

Appleseed's report included interviews with kids who've been sent to a Juvenile Justice Department facility. Sixty-four percent of them had been repeatedly stopped or questioned by school police in the past — starting around age 12. Just under a third of the kids questioned had been thrown to the ground and handcuffed by police. Five percent said they have been helped by a police officer in any way. 
Poll results from kids who've been sent to a Juvenile Texas Justice Department facility. - TEXAS APPLESEED AND TEXANS CARE FOR CHILDREN
  • Texas Appleseed and Texans Care for Children
  • Poll results from kids who've been sent to a Juvenile Texas Justice Department facility.

These interactions aren't just happening with older teens. In fact, the majority of recorded incidents where officers used force against a student happened in middle schools (remember when a San Antonio cop body-slammed a 12-year-old girl in April?) In 2015, there were even a few cases of police using force against a 6-year-old student.

"Police are punishing children for being children," Craven said. "Everyone knows by now that the youth brain is very different than the adult brain. Police don't always understand that deescalating a situation and understanding consequences looks different to a kid than an adult."

Police often mistake mental disabilities for criminal violence, the report notes, leading to the major overrepresentation of disabled students in campus arrests. Craven said that many school police don't receive any training before switching from a regular city police job to a school position.

Prior to the last legislative session, police weren't required to go through any kind of specialized youth training. Even now, the 2015 state law mandating school police to go through 16 hours of training only applies to those working in districts with more that 30,000 students.

Educated officers in only a piece of student's rights advocates' fight to keep kids out of the criminal justice system. But the reflection of adult policing patterns — where people of color, the mentally disabled, and men are arrested at an astoundingly high rate — in the state's youth population, paired with state legislature's interest in burdening teens with the responsibly of a safe police interaction makes officer education that more necessary.

"The most important thing to remember," Craven said. "Is that they are the adults in the situation."

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