This is part three of a four part series examining the various aspects of Benjamin's Haygood's 10 month educational and legal experience.
“He doesn’t have to be told, he has a warrant.” That was the response from the officer arresting then 10-year old John Benjamin Haygood at his school last year after his mother, Luanne Haygood, asked why John Benji wasn’t being told why he was being arrested. Hell, we are all still trying to figure out why he was arrested and charged with five felonies.
The warrant for John Benji was been issued in November of 2016, yet it took five months to execute. Mind you John Benji had not been in school since December 2016. His arrest appears to be one of convenience as he was at the school to participate in testing. The officer noticed John Benji as he passes the room he’s occupying and executed the warrant. In response to the outrage of the arrest, the district contended they knew nothing of the existing warrant and impending arrest. However, in a January 6, 2017 email to district officials and staff, the principal acknowledged a conversation with the school resource officer that a take and hold warrant was issued for John Benji and the department nor the school has any obligation to notify the parent. So they didn’t, and months later when John Benji made himself available, they executed it.
The SRO Role
The nature of John Benji's arrest calls into question the connection between the school resource officer and the school administration. One of the identified roles of a school resource officer is that of an informal counselor, one who is there to make connections with students, parents, and school staff. In speaking with Mo Canady, Executive Director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), this is a part of the “triad” that comprises the role of the school resource officer.
As the largest organization in the world providing training to school resource officers, NASRO has three clear components of school policing that underscore their triad roles:
The triad of roles of a school resource officer has two components that differ from street policing as we know it. In speaking with Sargeant Mark Roberts of the Okeechobee Sheriffi's department, who oversees the school resource officers, he affirmed that his officers receive training from NASRO. Although he indicated they do not do so regularly, they do however, participate in training annually from the Florida Association of School Resource Officers (FASRO).
As the supervisor of Okeechobee's school resource officer, Sgt. Roberts has advocated for more health and behavioral services for the students at Okeechobee Achievement Academy where John Benji attended. In a September 12, 2012 meeting of the Okeechobee County Juvenile Justice Council, Roberts asserted the students were are in need of additional services such as individual student counseling and family counseling'. With this level of concern for students, why such a callous approach with a 10 year old? The answer may be in the quality and focus of training.
In my discussion with Sgt. Roberts about the nature of training for Okeechobee School Resource Officers, he cited three priorities:
At the root of the contention was the assumption that street policing and school policing were the same. They are not. The variance in how these roles are defined can be measured by the requirements for training of school resource officers. Currently only 12 states require formal SRO training. This inconsistency underscores not only the perceptions about the role of the officer, but a justification for actions without uniform guidelines or standards. This type of inconsistency begs for controversy that is grounded in comfort, not quality.
Where's the Disconnect?
Disappointment is the difference between expectations and effort. That's what I heard growing up and found it to be a good yard stick in measuring outcomes. After John Benji's arrest the school district asserted it's lack of knowledge of the impending arrest. Likewise, the sheriff's department stated they were unaware of John Benji's status as a special needs student. All of this calls into question how connected these entities are in supporting the needs of students. How defined are their roles? Is there an existing memorandum of understanding between the school district and the Sheriff's office which outline expectations? How connected to the students is the of the School Resource Officer in this district? Given that the arresting officers claim unawareness of John Benji's special needs status, that's a valid question that needs to be answered.
Maryellen Quinn-Lundy, Director of the Florida Atlantic University Center for Autism & Related Disabilities, in response to the question of options available to school staff including school resource officers in helping students with John Benji's identified special need, she stated, "Parents, Educators and Law Enforcement must take a proactive stance, in working with students with disabilities. Autism is a very complex disorder and requires all adults to partner and collaborate, to ensure positive outcomes for students. Schools, especially rural school districts, often have limited resources to support children with behavioral challenges." This is the same agency district officials touted as a resource to their staff, including school resource officers. in an interview a month after John Benji's arrest.
Here's the bottom line, with all of the training available to support staff and school resource officers, why do the actions and responses before, during and after John Benji's arrest not match that of the experts who can and do provide the support? According to Ms. Quinn-Lundy, "Florida is unique to other states, as Florida offers a statewide system of support for persons with autism, at no cost to the individual, school district, or law enforcement agency." Appa;rently resources aren't the problem.
This question of school resource officer roles is not new. It's a question of quality over comfort. This can be defined in the response to disappointing outcomes and evidenced by justifications after-the-fact with few qualitative standards to stand on. Doing what has always been done is 'comfort', doing what's right consistently is quality. The school to prison pipeline begins as term suggests, at school. When law enforcement becomes entangled in the processes of addressing school misconduct, the cycle flows to the courthouse and to jail. After John Benji's arrest he as taken to a detention center approximately 45 minutes away and detained overnight. The next day he was taken before a judge and arraigned. Nothing you would expect a 10 year old-autistic child to experience, but experience it he did.
Luanne Haygood, John Benji's mother, describes the long term implications of his arrest and impending trial on five felony charges.
Video Courtesy Topspin Content
Ms. Haygood's concerns are shared by many parents who struggle to understand actions that don't grow children but label them. When serving your warrant on a 10 yearl old special needs student supercedes the need to communicate and engage parents, maybe you're a little too comfortable.