AUSTIN (KXAN) — Even though nearly 20 years have passed, Jon Bailey clearly remembers the two school police officers who were assigned to his high school campus. He was a student at O.D. Wyatt High School in Fort Worth, and it was the first time police were stationed in the halls on a regular basis.
“They were really big, really, really tall, had a strong presence,” Bailey said. “At first glance, we were nervous. ‘Who are these guys?’ We were scared and they just had such a strong presence that it made you not want to do anything wrong.”
As time went on, and Bailey and his classmates got to know the officers, their initial impressions changed.
“They were super cool,” Bailey said. “They were some of the most enjoyable staff members that the kids wanted to be around.”
Bailey, who is a Black man, said the experience with the police officers at his high school were very different from the interactions with traditional officers he encountered off campus.
He went on to become a teacher in Pflugerville ISD, and a principal in Manor. In January, he took over as the principal at LBJ Early College High School in east Austin; a campus in a historically black neighborhood. Thirty-eight perfect of students are Black, the highest percentage of Black students in the Austin Independent School District.
Bailey takes over at LBJ amid the Black Lives Matter movement and a national outcry against police mistreatment of Black people, as well as a push by social justice groups to scale back the use of police inside schools.
Against that backdrop, KXAN analyzed AISD’s policing data and found a disparity in the treatment of Black and white students when it comes to use of force incidents. Although Black students make up just 7% of AISD’s student body, Black individuals were involved in an average of 30% of the use of force cases over the past five years.
Use of Force Disparity
KXAN obtained the district’s use of force reports for the last five years. The reports count every type of incident, from physical contact with a child or adult up to an officer using a stun gun or pointing a gun at a suspect.
According to the data, force is not something AISD police officers use often. Of more than 35,000 annual calls, there have typically been fewer than 100 use-of-force incidents each year, except for 2015 and 2019. In 2015, AISD police were involved in 112 use of force cases. Last year, the number rose to the highest in five years: 142.
“If we can get that down to zero, it would be ideal,” said AISD Senior Police Officer Wayne Sneed. “That’s an ideal world; it’s not a realistic one.”
Sneed, who is AISD PD’s mental health coordinator, said the frequency of use of force is not solely dictated by the officers’ choices.
“They are going to do what they have to do to keep the community and the school safe and the students safe as well,” Sneed said.
Most use-of-force incidents involved students. Included in the data are some adults who have shown up on campus, according to Sneed, but the numbers don’t distinguish between students and adults.
Out of the 415 times AISD police officers used force between 2015 and 2019, they mostly used their hands, according to the data. Officers used pepper spray nine times, deployed a stun gun on six people and never fired a gun.
Justice groups: Police should not be in schools
Police protests and calls for change in Austin around racial injustice and systemic racism have expanded to local school districts, including AISD. During a virtual school board meeting in June, when trustees were approving the 2020-2021 budget, more than a dozen people called in asking for the district to stop funding its police department and freeze the hiring of new officers.
“I am calling on AISD to divest in the following for the budget: school police,” stated one caller.
AISD employs the largest school police department in Central Texas, with nearly 90 sworn officers. The majority serve as designated School Resource Officers assigned to middle and high school campuses. While most local school districts have campus police, not everyone thinks law enforcement officers should be in schools.
“The biggest focus we have is creating safety without fear, and that, for all students, does not look like SROs in schools,” said Amber Watts, the education director for the Austin Justice Coalition. “Black and brown students are not affected in the same way that white students are affected by police in schools.”
This summer the racial justice group wrote a letter to the AISD, calling on the district to spend less on its police department and more on restorative practices. The group, which has been at the forefront of the local Black Lives Matter movement, also wants more transparency. AJC asked the district to post the police budget, policies and use-of-force data online.
The AISD PD website says its policies are currently under review. The district told KXAN it has been under a comprehensive review since the current chief took over two years ago. The use of force policy will be made public in about a week, and the full policy manual should be ready in the next couple of months.
Andrew Hairston, an attorney with Texas Appleseed, has been examining and documenting racial differences in Texas schools for years. He leads the organization’s school-to-prison pipeline project, which has prompted legislative changes in how Texas children are disciplined in schools.
The nonprofit tracked years of data and found children of color across the state are arrested more at school and involved in more use of force incidents than their white classmates. The group believes situations where school police usually get involved, such as fights and drug possession, would be better handled by mental health professionals and campus administration.
“That’s not to say you shouldn’t address that harm when it occurs, but there are different ways to approach it than having a school police officer come break up a fight and then perhaps charge both of the young people involved in that fight with resisting arrest or disturbing the peace, or, in dire circumstances, assault of a police officer,” Hairston said.
During that June AISD board meeting, where trustees approved the 2020-2021 budget, Trustee Cindy Anderson responded to the public’s calls to divest in school police.
“Currently, we invest more in mental health, social-emotional learning and restorative practices combined than we do in our law enforcement department,” Anderson said.
The approved AISD budget pours $10 million into mental health and just over $9 million into its police force.
AISD PD training
The AISD PD held a week-long de-escalation training for its officers in early August that goes beyond the hours of education required by the state.
“What we don’t as a law-enforcement community do, we don’t teach enough how to use this and this to de-escalate a situation,” said Sneed, as he pointed to his head and mouth.
Officers were divided into groups and worked through de-escalation scenarios with actors. In one situation, an upset teacher who was just fired from her job had locked herself in a room with a knife. The officers’ role was to successfully calm her down by talking to her through the door, and get her to come out of the room without harming anybody.
Sneed said the training is always changing as events occur across the country that police can learn from. He said program changes have also been shaped by calls from the public to end police brutality.
“If you’re not listening to your community and your public, you would be ill willed,” Sneed said.
AISD Police Chief Ashley Gonzalez said that prior to nationwide calls for change this summer involving police tactics, his department already followed the 8 Can’t Wait protocols. It’s a group of recommendations police reform groups are asking departments across the country to adopt. The list includes banning practices like chokeholds and shooting at moving vehicles. It also calls on departments to require de-escalation techniques and to give suspects a warning before shooting.
While AISD PD does put more emphasis on use of force and de-escalation training, Sneed said the biggest message to officers is to be connected to their campuses and build relationships with students.
“What we strive to do is to treat our students fairly, to treat them just and to treat them with respect,” he said.
Back at LBJ High School in East Austin, principal Bailey said he’s had good experiences with the dozen or so SROs he’s worked with over the years in various school districts. He can only recall one time when it was clear to him a school police officer was not a good fit to work in a school setting, and that officer was removed from the campus.
Bailey said he makes a point to be involved with the officers and ensure they’re working as a team with the administration to cut down on arrests.
“I had the opportunity to see the officers intervene when some students we’re trying to engage in fighting,” Bailey said. “They were able to separate the students, but then allow campus administration to follow through on the discipline, and that’s what I prefer.”
It’s very important to him that his students view SROs as mentors who are there to support them — no matter what their experiences have been with police outside school walls.
School police across Central Texas
The investment in school police has risen across the country in recent years following numerous school shootings. In Central Texas alone, three new school police departments were approved last school year at Del Valle, Manor and Round Rock ISDs.
Instead of contracting out city and county law enforcement officers to serve as SROs on school campuses, the new district departments will train their own officers, who will be school district employees.
RRISD, which has not yet selected a police chief, said it will require its new officers to undergo student-centered training that far exceeds the minimum requirements in diversity, racial equity, behavioral health, restorative practices and de-escalation.
KXAN requested use of force data from a number of area police departments and sheriff’s offices who have officers serving on local school campuses. So far, AISD is the only district that has provided the information.
Additionally, KXAN asked for data on official complaints filed against school police officers for misconduct and racial profiling. We are still waiting on the information.
Photojournalist Chris Nelson, Senior Investigative Producer and Digital Reporter David Barer, Graphic Artist Andy Davis, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle and Digital Executive Producer Kate Winkle contributed to this report.