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An arresting attitude

An incident in which a school resource officer sought to charge a principal with obstructing justice highlights the different missions of educators and law enforcement.

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2001


An incident in which a school resource officer sought to charge a principal with obstructing justice highlights the different missions of educators and law enforcement.

For a lesson in how law enforcement can alter the educational environment, look no further than Southside Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg. There, as school began last fall, a 13-year-old boy pulled down the front of his pants in view of a female classmate, and principal Tom Jones called the boy and his father in to deal with it. The school "resource officer," perturbed that she was shut out of the meeting, set her criminal sights not only on the boy but on the principal, too.

Picture this: A school principal was accused of obstructing justice for refusing to allow a police officer into a disciplinary meeting with a boy and his father.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed within the Pinellas-Pasco state attorney's office, where the obstruction charge was quietly dropped. And nearly a year later, the St. Petersburg police officer, Jane Story, was reassigned by a lieutenant who had the good sense to understand that the working relationship between her and Jones was irreparably broken.

But the arresting attitude of Officer Story should not be dismissed lightly.

The school resource officer program in Pinellas was begun with the intent of building bridges between law officers and children, and it has come also to serve as an extra layer of safety and emergency response, particularly as deadly weapons have found their way onto campuses. The program has generally worked well, and most principals and resource officers work cooperatively to deal with any serious issues that arise.

"I firmly believe there is a place for resource officers on our campuses, and for the most part we have very good working relationships with them," says Lewis Williams, Pinellas schools area superintendent and a former principal. ". . . But certainly, it's more likely that incidents that once upon a time were totally handled by principals could carry criminal proceedings today."

The problem is the fundamental difference in the missions of education and law enforcement. An educator is expected to teach, to use discipline as a tool for learning. A police officer carries a gun and is expected to arrest people. In the case of the 13-year-old boy, Jones examined the circumstances and the history of the boy's behavior and assessed that he could be appropriately punished within the school environment. Story said a crime was committed, and filed a criminal complaint.

The fact that Officer Story then took the peculiar step of trying to criminalize the principal's actions has certainly caught the attention of Pinellas administrators, causing them to restate the terms of their relationship with resource officers. But the more disturbing lesson from this case is the one not yet fully learned. Many types of school misbehavior, whether it be a student pushing another student or even yelling at a student, are grounds for a criminal charge. But seldom is a useful purpose served by such an arrest. Any time a 13-year-old boy is treated like a criminal, educators need to be wary.

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