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Cops shouldn't handle discipline in WA schools, ACLU says

Police are handling routine discipline issues in many Washington schools – sometimes even arresting children — finds a new study from the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

The ACLU-WA found that 84 percent of the state’s largest school districts have police officers patrolling the halls, even at the elementary level in more than a quarter of districts studied. From the report, a story about a woman named Laura, whose son had been diagnosed with anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anxiety:

In 2015, Laura was called to her son's elementary school in King County because he was having behavioral problems. ... She found her 8-year-old son handcuffed and restrained face down on the floor by two police officers. Her son was sobbing and had urinated on himself. He was unable to calm down due to the continued restraint and ended up being hospitalized.

At some schools without cops, police are often called to campus to address discipline issues.

"Police have pretty wide latitude in our state to engage in generalized student discipline," said Vanessa Torres Hernandez, youth policy director for ACLU-WA and principal author of the study. She said that in most cases, districts give police activity in schools little oversight, and officers are not required to have specialized training to work with children in a school setting.

Hernandez said police can even arrest kids for standard misbehavior because of the state’s “disturbing school” law, which appeared in charging documents for juveniles around 800 times in the past two decades.

"It is actually a crime under Washington law to intentionally disturb or disrupt a school,” Hernandez said. “We think that that crime should never be applied against students. You shouldn’t be arrested or prosecuted for misbehaving in your classroom.”

Although few schools appear to routinely track the details of police activity, the study found that cops were called on students more than 3,400 times in the 2013-14 school year and seem to be disproportionately involved in incidents concerning Latino students and those with disabilities.

The ACLU-WA also found that police are more likely to be stationed in schools with more students of color and in low-income neighborhoods. That's relevant because researchers found that students were more likely to be arrested for regular discipline issues if police were based at their school.

The ACLU-WA is calling for districts like Seattle to re-examine their relationships with police and to keep track of all incidents involving law enforcement on campus. It’s also asking the state to abolish the disturbing schools law and to set standards for police in schools, including keeping regular discipline issues handled by school officials, not by cops.