The shirt that caught a teacher's attention and caused a policy dust-up.
Photo credit: NRA
A few years back (almost ten now) I was a member of my county Board of Education’s Citizen Advisory Committee. It just so happened that while I was serving in that capacity my county was debating whether or not to add more School Resource Officers (SROs) in the schools. At the time our county had ONE SRO – a state trooper who worked all four county high schools – and an assortment of DARE officers (deputy sheriffs) who were present in the various middle schools as their classes demanded. The Sheriff had secured a DHS grant that would have supported putting an SRO in EVERY school – high school, middle school and elementary school… EVERY school in the county. The Board of Education was, shall we say, resistant to the idea.
As I attended meetings and listened to arguments I found myself getting quite frustrated. Some of the arguments against putting more SROs in the schools included:
- Complaints/concerns about “all those guns that deputies wear coming into the schools.”
- How a uniformed presence might teach students that they aren’t responsible for their own actions. (if there’s a deputy present then the students might misbehave instead of acting responsibly.)
- The question of who the SRO answered to: the Principal of the school or the Sheriff?
- The question of whether or not the SRO/Deputy would enforce school policy or only the law.
I liked to think of myself as the voice of sweet reason on the side of the Sheriff’s office in those discussions.
Obviously there is no convincing some people that guns are not inherently evil or dangerous, so some of the Advisory Committee members were going to vote against added SROs simply because they didn’t like (or know much about) guns.
The opinion that the presence of a uniform deputy would somehow encourage students to misbehave is akin to suggesting that having a marked patrol car on the highway encourages people to speed. No, it doesn’t make any sense, but it was a clear indicator of the intelligence/common sense level of some of the other advisory committee members.
Whether the deputy would answer to the principal of the school or to the Sheriff seemed a silly question to me. In matters of school policy in non-emergency situations, the deputy would answer to the principal. In an emergency situation and/or criminal investigation situation, the deputy would answer to the Sheriff and the law.
It seemed to me that also answered the final question/objection: would the deputy enforce school policy or only the law? Both. However, it quickly became obvious that sometimes the school policy could be determined at the whim of the principal and that the deputy may have no legal authority to enforce such policy. If the deputy would not obey the orders of the principal to enforce legally questionable school policy then the school board did not want the deputy in the school.
Which brings me to the topic at hand: in recent news, an eighth grader was arrested. The precipitating event was that the student refused to take off or turn inside out a pro 2nd Amendment t-shirt that featured a picture of a scoped bolt action rifle and the NRA logo. According to news reports, the student was confronted about the shirt while he was standing in line in the cafeteria. Believing that the shirt was not in violation of the school’s dress code (and having read the school’s published dress code, I don’t believe it was either) he refused to take it off and he refused to turn it inside out. He was sent to the office.
Just for the record, I’ve got no problem with what’s happened so far. The teacher felt a violation of school policy had occurred; the student disagreed; the teacher sends the student to the office. Now, since this student is 14 years old, there is always the question of whether or not he was respectful in his responses to the teacher; however, even if he was not respectful, that’s another school policy violation. So far, I’ve read nothing that would indicate to me the commission of a crime.
The reports go on to indicate that police were called to the school, I would guess at the request of the principal, and the student was arrested. The student’s family said that he was arrested for disrupting an educational process and obstructing an officer. This is where I start making that look on my face like, “Huh?”
I don’t know about the laws in every county in our country (obviously). I’m not familiar with the laws of every state (but I hope common sense is the common thread). But I have to question whether or not the county in question actually has a LAW against disrupting an educational process. That sounds more like a school policy to me. Further, if it IS an actual law, then I’m curious as to how this student wearing a shirt, that didn’t violate the dress code, disrupted anything? I think it’s more likely that the student’s refusal to obey an order from a teacher and then the principal was what caused the disruption. If that’s the case, then who is wrong? Let’s leave that for further thought and move on.
So the police arrived at the school and the student was arrested and charged. If the first violation is indeed of a school policy then how did this student obstruct an officer? Of course, the actions of both are not detailed out. It’s entirely possible that this student refused to be cooperative with the police to the point of exhaustive frustration. It’s entirely possible that the police officer did all he could to help the student and that the 14 year old was so uncooperative that the police officer finally found himself in the position of having no choice but to take the kid out of school and the only way to do it was to arrest him.
No matter the circumstances, the hurdle I keep running into in my head is an arrest for a school violation. Or was the arrest for obstructing the officer as he tried to investigate the school violation? Without access to the arrest records or arresting officer to ask, then everything is conjecture… but it still doesn’t feel right to read an article about a 14 year old who is arrested after an encounter with a teacher over a t-shirt that ultimately was determined not to violate the school’s dress code. The teacher was wrong; the teacher instigated the incident; the kid stood up for himself and the end result was an arrest.
I use that example, not to criticize the officer(s) but to demonstrate how easily an alleged violation of school policy, which should be resolved by the parents and principal, can evolve into a criminal matter we should never have had to deal with in the first place. Ultimately, it seems to me, that the school personnel wanted to force the student to do as he was told, even if the reasoning for what he was told was faulty. If the student refuses, then the principal should have called the boy’s parents before calling the police. It’s not, yet, a criminal matter UNLESS there is actually a law against disrupting an educational process. (I’ve never heard of such, but as I said earlier on, I’m not an expert on the laws of every county in our country.)
We as law enforcement professionals have to exercise our best judgment in every situation. That’s nothing new. In today’s world where legislators and various organizational officials try to create rules for every conceivable scenario or behavior, the lines between policy violation and violation of the law may be blurred. It behooves us to use our best judgment. My preference would be to err on the side of leniency but that’s a call each of us has to make. All of us, whether we are law enforcement professionals, professional educators, parents or students, need to remember that no law or policy can be created to determine moral or immoral, right or wrong. All we can create rules and laws for is legal and illegal in a given location/situation.