INDIANAPOLIS – School fights. Being extremely disruptive in class. Disorderly conduct. These are all things that land Indiana students in trouble. They can face several forms of discipline like suspension or expulsion. But some experts are raising concerns about the number of students getting arrested on school property.
The Indiana Department of Education recorded more than 1,200 arrests on school property during the 2018-2019 academic year. Several districts each reported dozens of arrests.
Under Indiana code, school corporations are required to report the number of arrests of students on school property, offences for which students were arrested and statistics concerning the age, race and gender of students arrested on school corporation property.
“Sometimes arrest is the only option to get kids help because the resources don’t exist before that or the path to get them resources is not clear enough to the police officer,” said Chase Lyday, president of the Indiana School Resource Officer Association.
The most common reasons for arrest are battery, possession of marijuana and disorderly conduct. Lyday said battery could include a school fight and disorderly conduct may mean a child was disturbing the peace.
“Those low-level crimes are easily dealt with outside of the criminal justice system,” Lyday said.
In the 2018-2019 school year, the Indiana Department of Education recorded 1,217 arrests on school property. 100 of those happened at a single district in northern Indiana.
During the 2019-2020 school year, Indiana Department of Education recorded 951 school-related arrests.
“A higher number of arrests would likely indicate lack of training, lack of school resource officer training for school police officers,” Lyday said.
He believes street police officers working in schools should take school resource officer (SRO) training, and that could bring the number of arrests down. SROs are trained to arrest students, but Lyday explained officers also learn to deescalate a situation and make decisions best for the student.
He said instead of arresting a child, they could refer the student to a mental health counselor or another community resource.
“A street police officer has to have proper context working around a special population like students, particularly special needs students and traumatized students,” he said.
Russell Skiba, a professor emeritus at Indiana University School of Psychology, has worked in the area of school policing for 25 years.
“They are more likely to be arrested again, and that effect is greater for Black students in particular,” he said.
He explains an arrest can also increase a student’s chance of dropping out of school.
“Failure to graduate had a huge economic impact on communities of color because of the fact kids from their communities are getting arrested more,” Skiba said.
The records Indiana Department of Education provided to FOX59 provide some race data on arrests. It shows how many students of a specific ethnicity are enrolled at the school and how many arrests are associated with that ethnicity.
The data obtained by FOX59 does not break down offences by race. It only shows how many arrests for a specific offence occurred at a school.
For example, Indiana schools recorded 303 battery offences and 213 possession of marijuana offences during the 2018-2019 academic year.
“We really can’t test the extent to which that is happening in Indiana until we have the disaggregated data,” Skiba explained.
In addition to more SRO training, Lyday is calling for pre-trail diversion programs for students in more counties. He thinks this will give officers another option before a charging decision is made.
“We get kids the actual resources they need to keep them out of the criminal justice system to restore their mindset and behaviors,” Lyday said.
Right now, Senate Bill 64 in the state legislature would require a law enforcement officer not considered an SRO to complete 40 hours of certified school resource officer training. That proposal has been referred to a committee in the Senate.
Lyday wants to know if the arrest numbers are different between school resource officers and officers who are not trained to be a school resource officer.
He said Indiana University is sending out a survey to members of the Indiana School Resource Officer’s Association that will gather that data.
“MY GOAL IS THAT IT SHOULD BE ZERO TO NONE”
According to Indiana Department of Education data, Indianapolis Public Schools ranked fifth for highest number of arrests on school property during the 2018-2019 academic year with 58 arrests. However, that number is different than totals provided to FOX59 by the Indianapolis Public Schools police department.
IPS Police Chief Tonia Guynn said the district recorded 76 arrests during the 2018-2019 school year, an improvement from previous academic years.
According to Chief Guynn, the district recorded 108 arrests during the 2016-2017 school year. Even with a transition to remote learning, 50 arrests occurred on IPS property during the 2019-2020 school year.
“That is still too high. My goal is that it should be zero to none,” she said.
Chief Guynn took her position a little more than a year ago. She said one of her goals is to have every officer complete SRO training. Guynn believes about around a third of her department is trained to be an SRO. She explained the pandemic interrupted training that was scheduled.
“It is very important officers understand we work through the lens of an SRO. We understand we are police officers, but my model is work as an SRO to engage and empower students. If something serious happens when you have to be that police officer, that is different,” she said.
Ahmed Young, general counsel and chief of external affairs for IPS, applauds the decrease in the number of arrests on school property over the years.
“That is due in large part to not only leadership but setting expectations for how we do keep students in the classroom,” he said.
The district plans to handle disorderly conduct and battery cases in a different manner than arrest. They have already changed their policy towards school fights. Chief Guynn said an arrest was not helping the student.
Overall, district officials said reducing the number of arrests has to be a goal.
“It is aspirational to be in a place where we have zero arrests,” said Young. “If we have zero arrests, that means we have more students in the classrooms, doing what they are supposed to be doing which is learning and engaging in the educational experience.”