Early this summer, the nation turned its eyes to McKinney, Texas, after a video of a police officer brutalizing black children at a pool party went viral. In the video, Officer Eric Casebolt handcuffs several young teenagers and points his gun at others; he also violently slams a teen girl to the ground and sits on her back while the girl cries for her mother. The incident was documented by a 15-year-old white student who went seemingly unnoticed by the police. The teens were at the party to celebrate the end of the school year.
Now, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, along with advocacy group Texas Appleseed and several other local civil rights organizations, have written a letter to McKinney Superintendent Rick McDaniel urging the district to train school police officers on how to safely interact with young people.
A new Texas law, HB 2684, will require police officers serving schools to be trained in de-escalation techniques, child psychology and development, and best practices for working with students with disabilities, but the bill only applies to districts serving more than 30,000 students. With about 25,000 students enrolled in McKinney's public school district, school cops there – and in other small districts across Texas – are exempt from the training. And advocates say the pool party incident highlights a much bigger problem with how police treat young people of color.
According to data obtained by Texas Appleseed, African American students in McKinney schools are disproportionately targeted by school police officers, who are McKinney PD officers contracted with the school district. Since 2012, despite making up only about 13 percent of the student population, African American youth received 36 percent of all tickets and 39 percent of all arrests by school resource officers. They also received almost a third of all in-school suspensions, a third of all placements in Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs and 38 percent of out-of-school suspensions. Latino students are also overrepresented, making up only about a quarter of the student population but 40 percent of Disciplinary Alternative Education Program placements.
Those numbers parallel school discipline figures nationwide: Black students make up only 15 percent of the student population but represent nearly half of the students who are suspended more than once. Black students do not actually misbehave more often than white students, but are treated differently for the same offenses — especially subjective offenses that may be driven by implicit bias. According to the Legal Defense Fund and Texas Appleseed, that's what's happening in McKinney: While white students received significantly more tickets than their black and Latino peers for clear-cut offenses like possession of marijuana and tobacco, black students received more than twice as many "disorderly conduct" citations as white students. School police disproportionately targeting students of color for subjective offenses is a well-documented phenomenon across the country, from "insubordination" in New York City – for which 57 percent of black students, but only 7 percent white students, were suspended – to the recently banned "willful defiance" offense in Los Angeles.
In their letter, the Legal Defense Fund and Texas Appleseed emphasize that they "oppose the practice of using law enforcement officers to implement school disciplinary practices." But, they say, if you're going to have cops administering discipline in schools, you at least have to train them in how to safely and respectfully interact with youth. The advocates are pushing for the training outlined in HB 2684 to be implemented across all districts in Texas, not just the largest ones.
"[Officer Casebolt's] actions call into question the adequacy of the training that McKinney Police Department (PD) officers receive, particularly youth-focused training," the letter notes. "The safety of students and teachers is unquestionably an important goal, and that safety depends on law enforcement officers being properly trained."