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Advocacy Groups Ask Gov. Abbott to Study School Officers' Use of Force

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Last month, a San Antonio middle school police officer was fired after a video showed him using excessive force on a 12-year-old girl. The officer, intervening in a shouting match, had picked her up from behind — then body-slammed her onto the concrete floor, face-first, and cuffed her. Kids can be heard screaming, “Janissa, are you okay?”

It was just one of several school police officer use-of-force incidents that nine advocacy groups highlighted in a letter to Governor Greg Abbott this week, urging him to put together a task force that will address how to better train school officers to know how to handle tense situations — without slamming kids to the ground, that is.

“These reported incidents demonstrate time and again officers using force on students who do not pose an immediate threat — students who are breaking up fights, girls yelling at one another, students unwilling to give up a cell phone, and a student walking away from school,” the groups wrote in their letter to Abbott.

The letter to Abbott cites a 2015 Houston Chronicle story in which Houston-area school districts, including Houston ISD and Pasadena ISD, among others, report that school officers used force on students and trespassers roughly 1,300 times in the past four years. However, as the article notes, the availability of stats varies from district to district, and there isn’t a requirement for districts to report the incidents to the state.

Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, which signed the letter, told the Chronicle back then, "What’s concerning about that is if you understand we have over 1,000 school districts in Texas, imagine what this means for the numbers of use-of-force incidents occurring statewide. This is just a small snapshot here; it would be an overwhelming number."

Matt Simpson with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas — which also signed the letter — said that this incomplete picture means that we most often learn of school officers' use of force in media reports, through anecdotes coloring in the worst of stories. There was the six-year-old kindergartner in Abilene who, chasing after his mom, was grabbed by an officer who twisted the kid’s arms behind his back, carried him into the classroom and slammed him against a desk. And there was the Bastrop ISD student who, trying to break up a fight, was Tasered by an officer, then fell to the floor and hit his head so hard that he spent 52 days in a coma and suffered a traumatic brain injury.

“It’s hard to get a grasp for how widespread the problem is when all we’re getting are these dramatic accounts,” Simpson said. “It could be that officers in 99 percent of schools are treating students well, but when all we see are videos of little girls being body-slammed, it makes you worried — not every incident can be caught on video.”

The task force the groups propose would not only try to gauge the real extent of the problem, but also review district or state policies and make recommendations for ways to safeguard against unnecessary use of force, perhaps with better training, Simpson said.

Last session, the Texas Legislature did in fact pass a bill that finally required training for school officers, but the bill limited the requirement to districts with at least 30,000 students — so, not including Abilene, where parents whose children have been subjected to use of force, including the six-year-old slammed against the desk, have now filed a federal lawsuit.

Now, Simpson said, the goal is to convince lawmakers that every kid in every school district, not just large ones, deserves to have adequately trained officers looking after him or her. “We need to be able to tell parents that they don’t have to be afraid to send their kids to school — and that includes not being afraid of law enforcement,” he said.

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