Louisville’s police in schools debate lacks necessary data
The Jefferson County Public Schools internal district law enforcement unit is routinely dispatched to local schools to deal with unruly students, assist staff and provide security.
The district’s Security and Investigations Unit is also a link between schools and outside law enforcement, at times calling in external agencies for help.
But the district doesn’t log how often that happens, said spokesperson Mark Hebert.
In Louisville, the debate about police in schools is intensifying and will take center stage Wednesday as Louisville Metro Police Department Chief Erika Shields joins Jefferson County Board of Education member James Craig and University of Louisville Professor Cherie Dawson-Edwards to discuss the issue at The Louisville Forum, a monthly discussion of timely issues hosted by local lawyers, lobbyists and power brokers.
Shields reignited the public debate seven weeks ago after an early-morning shooting at a school bus stop left a 16-year-old high school student dead and two others injured.
“The violence we are seeing in the communities does not end when the child gets on the bus and goes off to school for the day,” she said in September. “It goes into the school.”
Police officers are also in JCPS schools, said Hebert. They respond to suspected criminal incidents and emergency events, he said. State law also requires school officials to report certain criminal incidents to police.
But the full scope of their presence is not known, because the district doesn’t keep track.
‘Still very much involved’
In the public debate about law enforcement’s place in schools, the common practice of school officials calling external police for help is overshadowed by the role of the school-based resource officer.
The JCPS Board of Education voted in August 2019 to stop using SROs. Prior to that, the district’s more than 150 schools maintained a roster of fewer than 30 SROs. Still, the move was heralded as a progressive win for the advocates who led the charge.
“As a community, we got away feeling like, ‘Oh, we got police out of schools,’” said Dawson-Edwards, an associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at U of L. “But you didn’t, police are still very much involved in schools.”
The district’s failure to track that involvement is “ridiculous,” she said.
“It is a bit surprising,” said Chris Curran, an associate professor of education at the University of Florida. “If a situation was serious enough to warrant calling law enforcement, I would expect it to be reported upwards through district administrative channels.”
Hebert couldn’t say why the district doesn’t track the information.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We use and value the frequent communication with police, fire departments, social services agencies, Metro government and others who help us make our schools a safe and welcoming place to learn.”
‘The district’s police’
School officials in need of assistance often turn first to the district’s law enforcement agency, the Security and Investigations Unit, Hebert said.
“Each school and its staff have wide discretion to decide when they require assistance,” he said. “For everything from walking a staff member to their car to investigating possible criminal activity.”
The district’s officers are certified law enforcement with the power to make arrests, but they don’t carry guns, wear traditional police uniforms or drive in marked cruisers. The unit’s top investigators worked decades in local law enforcement, including Jimmy Harper — a former LMPD lieutenant who filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the city agency in 2017.
The unit’s officers and investigators are frequently in schools, according to district data.
There were about 1,830 calls for service to the unit between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. at JCPS schools from the start of the 2019-2020 school year through September of this year, according to a Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and WFPL News review of district data.
School officials called for an “out of control student” 250 times, more than any other reason, according to the data compiled by the Security and Investigations Unit.
In-person classes resumed this year for the first time since March 12, 2020, and with the return to school buildings the average number of calls in the first two months of class outpaced monthly pre-pandemic levels by 35 percent. This year, district police officers were dispatched more than 120 times in August and September to provide general assistance to staff or make a nondescript visit. Less than a quarter of calls are listed as weapon, drugs or assault investigations.
KyCIR requested information from JCPS that would detail “any and all calls for police service” to city schools. In response, district officials provided a 217-page document listing more than 10,000 incidents at JCPS facilities, including schools, bus garages and administrative offices.
The data, however, did not show calls to external police. Instead, the list detailed each call to the district’s Security and Investigations Unit.
“JCPS SIU officers are special law enforcement officers, colloquially referred to as ‘police,’” Amanda Herzog, JCPS assistant general counsel, said in an email. “We do not possess or maintain a log of calls to outside law enforcement agencies for services.”
The district’s data does not list specific details about the reason for each call for service, who made the call, if the call related to a student, if outside police responded or other details related to the outcome of the call.
Hebert said any outside police involvement is limited to suspected criminal matters.
‘Discretion and data’
In schools, unruly behavior is often seen as criminal, rather than the byproduct of adolescence, said Curran, who studies equity in school discipline and safety.
“We want some discretion to be able to distinguish between what is a more serious event versus a less serious one,” he said. “But we want to make sure that discretion is fair.”
Discretion can vary and is shaped by individual biases, he said. For instance, he said what one official sees as a minor scuffle, another may see as a serious assault.
Getting a full picture of how discretion is applied to discipline — and the effect that has on kids — depends on comprehensive data collection, said Keturah Herron, a policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky.
She said that’s not happening.
“Right now there is not collective data to where we really get a clear picture and understanding of what is really happening within the schools and the community,” she said.
Reporter Jess Clark contributed to this story.
Contact Jacob Ryan at 502-814-6559 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.