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The Effective Utilization of Police Liaison Officers in Responding to Student Misconduct

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The cooperative relationship between local law enforcement and the public schools has undoubtedly been of great benefit to building administrators who want to maintain school safety and security. However, the relationship sometimes creates double standards that can cause confusion and increase the potential for legal challenges. The prospect for legal difficulties is most apparent in the area of student discipline, where students occasionally must be questioned, searched, restrained or arrested.

Searching Students
Constitutional protections against unlawful search and seizure apply to police officers and public school officials. However, different standards apply in determining whether a school administrator or police officer may legally search a student. Generally, a decision by a school administrator to search a student must be based on “reasonable suspicion” that the student has violated some school rule and the search must be reasonable in its scope. This standard generally requires some level of individualized suspicion (and more than a hunch or feeling). On the other hand, a police officer is generally required to have a higher standard of “probable cause” to search a person.

The different standards afford school officials a little more leeway in deciding what evidence would be sufficient to conduct a search reasonable in its scope. For example, under the totality of the circumstances a school official may have reasonable suspicion to conduct a search of a student with prior drug offenses who appears at school with a flushed face, glassy-red eyes and an unusual or unruly affect. On the other hand, a police encountering such an individual in the community would, under most circumstances, not be at liberty to conduct a search.

So which standard applies to searches where the police liaison officer and school administrators are working cooperatively? In answer to this question several courts have indicated that, “a search of a student on school grounds by a school resource officer at the request of school officials should be deemed a search by a school employee . . . and thus is subject to the reasonableness standard, not the probable cause standard.”

Seizure or Holding a Student for Questioning
Constitutional concerns can also be invoked when a student is held for questioning. Most courts have applied the “reasonableness test” when examining whether a school official’s questioning of a student constitutes an unlawful seizure. The decisions have tended to permit more extended “involuntary” questioning of a student about school misconduct than would be permitted by a police officer acting outside of the school because “[s]tudents at school . . . have a significantly lesser expectation of privacy in regard to the temporary “seizure” of their persons than does the general population.” Courts are more likely to uphold a challenge based on the method of the detention (e.g. decision to place a student in a storage closet or have a liaison officer handcuff a student), rather than questioning the sufficiency of a district’s rationale for detaining the student.

Case law also suggests that joint questioning of a student by both school officials and a police liaison officer is entitled to a more relaxed “reasonableness standard.” Nonetheless, it is best to separate routine school investigations from police investigations. Serious criminal investigations require the work of trained law enforcement officers. Too much involvement or interference in the criminal investigation by school officials can compromise prosecution of a case. School officials should instead rely on initial police investigations to provide the factual support for any related school disciplinary action.

Similarly, school officials are advised to keep peace officers removed from routine disciplinary matters. Use of a police liaison officer for routine discipline interventions can sometimes result in claims that the school district should be held responsible for the decisions and actions of the police.

  • Only involve police liaison officers for health, safety or criminal concerns
  • Ensure that district policies and contracts with law enforcement clearly define the role of police liaison officers
  • Conduct staff training on the appropriate use of police liaison officers
  • Designate administration that will serve as primary contact with law enforcement (exceptions may exist for emergency situations)
  • Consider training for law enforcement officer who may be required to interact with students with unique needs
  • Avoid drafting IEPs/behavior plans that limit the authority of school officials to involve law enforcement
  • Don’t play the role of police or prosecutor by advocating a result in the juvenile justice system

This article is intended to provide general information with commentary. It should not be relied upon as legal advice. If required, legal advice regarding this topic should be obtained from district legal counsel.

Tim R. Palmatier is an education law attorney with the law firm of Kennedy & Graven, Chartered. For more information, please contact him at (612) 337-9300 or http://www.kennedy-graven.com.

© Tim R. Palmatier (2015). Used by permission.

Translating Research to Practice: It takes a Village!

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Most of us have heard the phrase “It takes a village to raise a child.” As a parent, I completely agree! As an educational professional, I think this phrase applies equally to translating research to educational practice – it takes a village, and it is not as easy as it sounds! I have spent the last twenty years of my career working in the schools to try to improve educational outcomes for students. While I continue to have the same mission, I recently began working at the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) at the University of Minnesota as an Associate Director. Now, my task is how to assist districts and other educational organizations to use the results of research to help guide their work towards closing the achievement gap and increasing educational outcomes for all students.

My experience over the past 20 years has largely been focused on how to maintain effective programs for students during tough economic times. We have all faced budget cuts, quickly rising benefit costs, salary increases for staff, and a growing number of high needs students. Fortunately, I learned there are strategies available that can raise achievement to all students without breaking the bank! However, the challenge for leaders is to distinguish what expenditures really make a difference for students from a hundred that do not. Knowing what works requires district leaders to ask different questions.

Typically, conversations start out by asking “What works in education?” While this may seem like a great question, a more powerful question is “What works best?” If you review the educational research literature, there are thousands of strategies that “work.” However, we need to identify those strategies that have the greatest impact on student achievement and make sure those strategies are well embedded in the instructional environment. When we talk about closing the achievement gap, we need to identify strategies and frameworks that will accelerate student achievement allowing them to make more than one year’s growth in one year.

Imagine if you had answers to some of the following questions during your annual budget preparation:

  • Students of teachers receiving support from instructional coaches gained 4 months more learning than students of teachers who did not receive coaching.
  • Students of teachers who received professional development in (pick your area) fared no better than students of teachers who did not receive the professional development.
  • Students who used on-line “flex books” performed similarly on standardized tests of achievement than students who used traditional textbooks.

If you were trying to make budget decisions about those three areas, you may decide to invest in instructional coaches, change the way professional development is delivered, and move away from purchasing textbooks in selected areas. But having data like this requires work. It requires that districts evaluate all programs, frameworks, and strategies using multiple measures. Many districts don’t have the internal capacity to do this type of work.

CAREI wants to help! We are working to identify statewide needs in the area of assessment, research, and evaluation and provide low-cost (or no-cost) services to districts. We have set an ambitious goal that we want our services to impact 80% of school districts within three years! In the ongoing quest to translate research to practice, I will be writing a regular column in the MASA newsletter called “Research to Practice”. I hope to identify relevant research and help build the bridge to practice. Please contact me at kgibbons@umn.edu if you want more information about CAREI or if you have certain topics you would like covered in future newsletters!

Kim Gibbons, Ph.D., currently is the Associate Director of the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement at the University of Minnesota. Prior to that, she was the Executive Director of the St. Croix River Education District (SCRED) located in Rush City, MN. SCRED has received national recognition for its use of the Response to Intervention (RtI) framework. In 2007, SCRED received a legislative appropriation to fund a statewide Minnesota RtI Center for two years. Dr. Gibbons obtained her doctoral degree in school psychology from the University of Oregon where she received extensive training in the problem solving model, curriculum based measurement, and research-based instructional practices. Prior to her role as the Executive Director, Dr. Gibbons has worked as a director of special education, staff development coordinator, and school psychologist. She is active in state leadership and is the past-president of the Minnesota Administrators for Special Educators. Finally, she is the co-author of three books and has numerous other peer-reviewed publications. She is a sought-after consultant who has given numerous workshops throughout the nation.