Memphis superintendent wants to create ‘peace force’ to replace sheriff’s deputies and keep students in school

To reduce the chance of student arrests or contact with juvenile court, Superintendent Joris Ray says he wants to create a “peace force” of armed district officers to replace sheriff’s deputies in schools.

Shelby County Schools board chairwoman Miska Clay Bibbs, left, and Superintendent Joris Ray. (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

Shelby County Schools would have to jump through a lot of hoops to make it happen, including convincing state lawmakers to pass legislation to authorize school districts to form their own law enforcement agencies.

Ray said he wants to “remove officers” who treat students disrespectfully, he told board members Tuesday. “At the end of the day, we’re trying to galvanize our officers and support them in relationships with students and to keep students in school.”

Ray believes Shelby County Schools will be able to more effectively control the behavior of officers if they report directly to the district. But at least one board member believes the force would not solve underlying causes of high rates of student discipline.

Research on how school resource officers affect student discipline is limited, but some studies suggest that students in schools with officers “might be more likely to be arrested for low-level offenses,” according to a 2013 review by the Congressional Research Service in response to the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The review also indicated that school resource officers can deter violence on campus.

Ray’s idea for a “peace force” would mostly comprise existing security officers whom Shelby County Schools employs, but with increased power to make arrests, carry guns, and receive training from the state’s certifying agency for police officers. They would also have more discretion on when not to make arrests, especially for minor offenses.

Memphis school leaders floated the idea in 2008 soon after then-Superintendent Kriner Cash was hired, but it never gained traction. Shelby County Schools security is now run by Gerald Darling, who came to Memphis with Cash after four years as the chief of a district-controlled police department for Miami schools.

That’s why training and officer selection are so crucial, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers. Whether a district contracts with a local law enforcement agency or creates its own, officers should focus on proactive relationship-building with students, said Mo Canady, the association’s executive director.

“If it’s not a community-based policing approach, they will find themselves struggling,” he told Chalkbeat. “We don’t want to do that to the expense of stepping on victims’ rights, but we also know when school resource officers approach through community-based policing, there’s a greater likelihood they’ll reduce arrests.”

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More K-12 school districts have created their own police forces in recent years in light of school shootings across the nation. Several large districts have their own law enforcement agencies, including Los Angeles, Miami, Cleveland, Atlanta, Louisville, and Houston, to beef up security and retain more control over interactions with students.

Earlier this year, Arkansas lawmakers authorized districts to create their own police forces.

Tennessee does not specifically allow or prohibit districts to create their own law enforcement agencies. Ray asked school board members to add the proposal to their annual wish list for state lawmakers, but board members blocked it after Stephanie Love said Ray’s administration had not answered their questions about the proposal.

“We’re creating the school-to-prison pipeline. Because as a district, we are suspending and expelling our children at a higher rate. We as a district are doing that,” Love said during a contentious discussion about the proposal at Tuesday’s board meeting.

Board member Stephanie Love during Tuesday’s meeting. (Shelby County Schools)

“We’re not going to sit up here and say that if we create a police force that our children are going to be treated better when we know we have employees who do not value our children, especially our black and brown children,” she told Ray.

Shelby County Schools reported 110 student arrests at school in the 2015-16 school year, according to the most recent federal data. The district has sought to change behavior through teacher training and conversations with specialists rather than barring a student from school.

About 100 school resource officers are already district employees, but have limited powers. If officers suspect a crime has occurred, they are required to call the police. The district budgeted for 15 more officers this school year and 30 the year before in the aftermath of a school shooting in Florida that killed 17 people.

The sheriff’s department spends about $5 million each year supplying deputies for schools, according to its most recent agreement with the district. Sheriff Floyd Bonner is not opposed to the district establishing its own police force, said Anthony Buckner, a department spokesman.

“We do not have an active plan to remove deputies from SCS schools,” Buckner said. “We’re committed to providing safety to students and staff. There’s a budgetary factor with each deputy no matter where they are.”

Still, there’s signs that sheriff deputies are already taking a smaller role in district security. The district’s agreement with the sheriff says that “no more than” 36 deputies will be in schools, similar to previous years. But this year, only 18 district schools have a deputy as a school resource officer.