In the 2011-2012 school year, Wyoming ranked fourth in the country for sending students to cops and courts. Cheyenne’s Johnson Junior High School referred students to law enforcement at a rate 15 times the national average.
“I started at Johnson in the fall of 2011,” says Manny Fardella, a School Resource Officer, or SRO, with the Cheyenne Police Department.
“Johnson was a busy school,” says Fardella. “They did have a lot disturbances and fights. There was some drug activity. There was a whole bunch of things going on.”
Students were reported to police 88 times that year. But Fardella says things have changed since then.
“Every single year since, we have had a drastic decrease in negative behavior,” says Fardella. “I think Johnson has made remarkable progress—and our numbers are way down.”
Data released this week by the U.S. Department of Education shows that Johnson Junior High logged just 9 referrals in the 2013-2014 school year.
In 2011-2012, about 6 in 1,000 students in the country was referred to law enforcement. In Wyoming, it was 12 in 1,000.The new Department of Education civil rights data shows that Wyoming continues to refer students to law enforcement at rates twice the national average.
As a state, Wyoming remains among the top in rate of referrals. Some Wyoming schools have particularly high rates. Casper’s Roosevelt High School and Centennial Junior High School have been near the top of list in the last two school years for which data is available. The referral rate at Rock Springs High School tripled between 2011-2012 and 2013-2014.
Fardella says numbers will go down only when officers are properly trained to build relationships with kids—and work closely with school staff.
“It either works or it doesn’t and if you don’t have the right person in there, it’s not going to work,” says Fardella. “And when it doesn’t work, you have negative results from that.”
University of Wyoming criminal justice professor Thomas Mowen sees a lot of negative results.
“You have law enforcement agencies that are pushing the SRO agenda and saying it increases safety,” says Mowen. “There’s absolutely no evidence that that’s the case. In fact, the evidence is on the other side. By putting an SRO in the school, you’re inflating the arrest rates.”
There are officers at about 32 percent of Wyoming schools—compared to about 29 percent nationally. In the wake of high-profile tragedies like the killings of students in Newtown, Connecticut, Wyoming made school safety and security a priority, which Mowen says isn’t rational.
“Your odds of being involved in a school shooting are similar to being struck by lightning,” says Mowen. “And yet, we’re creating a policy for something that is extremely rare.”
Mowen and others who research the impact of law enforcement in schools says it’s clear school resource officers have negative impacts on education.
“There’s tons of research that shows that these security measures are related to lower student attendance, higher dropout rates, higher pushout rates, lower SAT taking, lower grades,” says Mowen. “I mean, pretty much every negative outcome, there’s a straight line to at this point in the literature.”
Mowen says SROs often criminalize normal childhood behavior. Students face charges like ‘defiance of authority’ and are funneled from the classroom to the courtroom. The DOE’s civil rights data shows that students of color and those with disabilities are more likely to have run-ins with police than other students.
“We’ve seen a massive increase in inequality in discipline because of schools adopting formal criminal justice policies,” Mowen says.
In Wyoming, schools are twice as likely to call the cops on students with disabilities.
A mom in southeast Wyoming we’ll call “Karen”—because she fears using her name could lead to retribution from her school district—says she got a call earlier this year that her 8-year-old son with autism was acting out at school. So, she hopped in her car.
“Even though I was on my way, they decided to call a police officer to intervene,” Karen says.
Some SROs showed up just after she did and restrained her son. Karen says he was terrified.
“Why is the go-to reaction to behaviors that are a known result of his disability to bring in an officer?,” says Karen. “Being confronted in the middle of an escalation by someone who is an authority figure, and who has a weapon on them, and who is trained to deal with criminals, not 8-year-olds.”
Karen’s son had another run-in with an officer when he tried to walk out of school during the day.
The Police Department serving Karen’s school district says officers do attend one weeklong training that includes some information about students with disabilities, but Karen says police presence only made things worse.
“My child is now afraid of police officers,” says Karen. “He views them as someone who’s brought in to scare him or deter him. And he, at this point, would not ask a police officer for help.”
Wyoming is one of 38 states that does not require School Resource Officers to have any specific training on how to deal with kids.
But Cheyenne Police Department’s Manny Fardella is trained—and even trains others around the country.
“One of the biggest things I always stress when I teach an SRO class is the question of why,” says Fardella. “We have to dig deep and find out really, ‘why is the student doing what they do?’”