In a letter sent today to Bristol-Warren School District officials, five organizations that advocate for the rights of students and children criticized the district’s decision to immediately bring a police officer into the school to tackle disciplinary problems, instead of quickly expanding resources that have been depleted over the years to address the social service needs of students. The organizations that signed the letter are the R.I. Disability Law Center, R.I. Legal Services, Providence Student Union, Parent Support Network of R.I., and the ACLU of R.I.

The group letter noted: “Numerous teachers spoke up at last week’s school committee hearing, but [their testimony] … did not involve bringing police into the school. Instead, the teachers asked for increased mental health support for struggling children and additional behavioral services for students with IEPs …. Many teachers also noted that the uptick in, and escalation of, misbehavior at the school has taken place at the same time that programs and resources designed to address students’ behavioral and emotional health problems have diminished.”

The letter explained that, “When viewed in the light of both the testimony you heard last week and the disciplinary data we have reviewed that the school has provided the R.I. Department of Education,” hiring a police officer as the first step “is cause for some alarm” since it “may end up exacerbating, rather than alleviating, the school’s problems.” The letter explained: “When a student’s immature behavior is addressed by a law enforcement official trained in criminality and arrest, not in getting to the root of a behavioral issue, neither the child nor the school is well served.”

Particularly in light of the recognition of the behavioral and emotional problems triggering the incidence of misconduct at the school, the letter called the school discipline statistics regarding students with IEPs “eye-opening.” In the past two school years, “approximately 40% of all out-of-school suspensions at Kickemuit were of students with IEPs. Moreover, the vast majority of those suspensions involved not tangibly harmful or violent conduct,” such as fighting or threats, but instead offenses such as insubordination, disrespect, or “disorderly conduct.”

The letter acknowledged school officials’ “common goal of promoting a holistic approach to dealing with the problems that have prompted this public discussion.” However, “to the extent a crisis exists at Kickemuit, we firmly believe that scarce financial resources must be used for preventive services and more school counselors and social workers, not a police presence – both immediately and in the long term.  As long as schools prioritize punishment over treatment and services, at-risk students will be pushed out of schools and onto the path of delinquency. This hurts us all.”

The letter concluded: “As speaker after speaker noted, the best protection students can have is an availability of adequate social service and educational resources – including sufficient counselors, social service workers and teachers – that can meet their needs. We hope this will be paramount in the steps you take in the days, weeks and months ahead in working to promote a positive school environment at Kickemuit.”

The organizations’ letter can be found here.