Janilee Abrikian, Guest Columnist
Many schools have adopted draconian approaches to discipline and security, particularly schools serving at-risk student populations. School administrators face immense pressure regarding security measures and have 'got tough' on problem students. As a result, many schools have adopted zero-tolerance discipline policies.
While schools need to provide a safe learning environment, efforts also must focus on creating and maintaining a nurturing learning environment that is characterised by dignity and respect for all members of the school community; unambiguous, fair rules and discipline procedures concerning prohibited conduct; clear lines of authority and open lines of communication among principals, teachers, police personnel - school resource officers (SROs); and strong and compassionate leadership.
Authority and responsibility for discipline must reside with educators - with the principal as primary authority - rather than police personnel.
The vast majority of incidents in which SROs become involved are disciplinary matters that should be handled by educators - teachers, deans of discipline - under the supervision of the school principal. Schools must clearly define the roles and responsibilities of SROs.
Many schools suffer from the lack of policies which clearly define all stakeholder roles and respective responsibilities in discipline matters. This results in grave confusion for police personnel, teachers, parents, and students.
A comprehensive list of the responsibilities of stakeholders is not possible here; however, here are some examples:
Principal - Selects appropriate consequences for students who have committed major violations; protects the due-process rights of those involved in disciplinary matters; represents the school's position regarding all disciplinary matters; provides an opportunity for review of discipline decisions; is alert to whether an SRO is overly aggressive, disrespectful to students, or disruptive to the community.
Dean of discipline - Provides appropriate, consistent intervention consequences as identified in the disciplinary action levels in the school's conduct code.
Teachers - Must properly supervise students; must assume some of the roles perceived to be reserved for safety personnel.
Students - Must respect the rights and property of everyone; follow classroom and schoolwide rules.
Parents - Have a duty to assist the school in enforcing high standards of student conduct in order that education may be carried out in an atmosphere that is free of disruption and threats to persons and property.
ROLE OF THE SRO
Schools could consider implementing some of the following suggestions when crafting the role of the SRO. The SRO will:
Function as an enforcer of the law.
Investigate crime and disorder problems, gangs, and drug activities affecting or occurring in or around the school.
Assist in developing policy that addresses crime prevention and early intervention activities.
Protect the school environment, e.g., by identifying physical changes that should be made.
Serve as community liaison.
Communicate regularly with the principal concerning school safety.
Serve as a member of the school's safety committee and any other relevant committees.
Function as a law-related counsellor-adviser.
Help students to make more positive choices by listening and referring them to professional services such as the guidance counsellor, or youth and family-services agencies.
Engage in solving problems that are not necessarily law violations - e.g., bullying or disorderly behaviour - but which are safety issues that could result in or contribute to criminal incidents.
Function as law-related educator.
Participate in parent-teacher association meetings.
Assist administration in developing or expanding educational crime-prevention programmes.
Give classroom presentations that emphasise responsible citizenship, general crime prevention, and conflict resolution.
What the SRO must not do is function as school disciplinarian. The SRO is not to be involved in the enforcement of disciplinary infractions that do not constitute violations of the law.
The SRO must, at all times, be aware of his responsibility to maintain the positive image of the law-enforcement officer in the eyes of the school community. The SRO must remember that the school environment is different from that of the streets.
Effective SROs are those who have a long relationship with the school. Becoming a familiar presence in the school builds healthy and trusting relationships with students of all ages and backgrounds. Currently, SROs share their time among several schools. Regular policing demands such as going to court also compete for their time.
SELECTION OF SRO
In selecting SROs, the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) must determine what qualifications the SROs should meet. In this regard, the JCF has been revising its profile of the SRO. Attention must also be paid to selecting the 'right' SRO for a school.
The discipline and control of students is the responsibility of the teachers and administration. Disciplinary consequences levelled against students who act contrary to the school's standards should reinforce the fact that the student made a poor choice, and in the future needs to make better decisions. When a student breaks a rule, the disciplinary action that results should be commensurate with the transgression.
Schools need to have codes of conduct which define major categories of behaviour and which state the disciplinary actions that may occur as a result of student misconduct. With regard to suspicion of theft or attempted theft, the role of administration and the police should be clearly defined. The code must address when children are subject to arrest or other law-enforcement interventions.
MANDATE ALTERNATIVES TO HARSH DISCIPLINE
Though zero tolerance resonates positively with many, it can be ineffective as a corrective measure and can have a demoralising effect on the student body. Zero tolerance can push children into the juvenile justice system, as these students are likely to drop out, become drug users, face emotional challenges, and develop criminal records as adults.
The Ministry of Education should mandate training for all school staff in conflict resolution, which includes restorative justice practices. The latter is a conflict-resolution method that focuses on providing opportunities for all sides of a dispute to define the harm caused by an act, and devise remedies.
The SRO is responsible only for criminal law enforcement, and not school-discipline matters. Therefore, minor disciplinary infractions such as disorderly conduct, trespassing, loitering, profanity, and tardiness should be handled exclusively by school officials. Students should be arrested only as a last resort. Principals - and to the extent possible, parents or guardians - must be consulted prior to the arrest of a student. SROs should work closely with families and schools to resolve incidents with the student's best interest in mind.
The JCF must evaluate the performance of SROs. Training of new recruits, refreshers for SROs previously trained, and ongoing support from appropriate agencies for SROs need to be urgently undertaken. The constabulary has been hampered in this regard by a paucity of funds. Money must be channelled into implementing and sustaining an effective SRO programme.
Janilee Abrikian is general manager of Peace and Love in Society, a mediation and conflict-resolution lobby. Email feedback to columns@ gleanerjm.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.