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With Overland Park finger gun arrest, do police go too far in keeping schools safe?

Overland Park Police Chief Frank Donchez insists that his officer did absolutely the right thing when he handcuffed and arrested a Shawnee Mission eighth-grader who formed her fingers into a pretend gun and aimed at her classmates.

“I’ll take the heat all day long for arresting a 13-year-old,” Donchez told The Star this past week. “I’m not willing to take the heat for not preventing a school tragedy.”

In a climate of heightened fear, where people wonder which school in suburban America will be the scene of the next mass shooting, that sort of vigilance makes sense to some.

Indeed, the Overland Park Police Department’s school resource officers (or SROs) appear to have stepped up arrests in middle schools and high schools.

According to data the department provided to The Star, SROs made 223 arrests during the 2018-2019 school year. That’s roughly 50 more than the previous school year.

The data includes Overland Park secondary schools in the Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley districts as well as Saint Thomas Aquinas High School, but not district schools in other Johnson County cities.

Last school year, there were over twice as many arrests in Shawnee Mission than in Blue Valley, even though the department works in only five Shawnee Mission schools as opposed to 13 in Blue Valley.

By comparison, in Kansas City, Kansas, schools this school year alone, 12 students have been arrested. Data was not available for all of Kansas City Public Schools, but at Southeast High School this school year, about a dozen students have been arrested so far.

Overland Park Deputy Police Chief Simon Happer, who oversees the department’s SRO program, said his department’s arrest numbers are relatively small compared to the thousands of students in those schools.

Yet the finger gun incident has the community and some experts questioning whether school leaders, the police and prosecutors have now gone too far.

Arrests such as this could actually backfire on law enforcement hoping to deter crime, said Aaron Kupchik, a professor of sociology at the University of Delaware.

An arrest when it’s not “absolutely necessary,” he said, can harm a student. They are at risk of falling behind, less likely to graduate and get a job, and more likely to be incarcerated again in the future.

“When we are overly punitive in schools, we increase the risk of individual students getting involved with the justice system later on,” Kupchick said.

One reader of The Star’s original story about the finger gun arrest, Kevin Woodard, called it a “no-win situation.”

“I think this is way over the top — but also understand where the school etc. is coming from. They ignore or do little about it and the student then follows through, then all the people come out of the woodwork accusing the people of not taking proper action and suing the crap out of the school. They do what they did, and people criticize them for that and probably still get sued.”

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The finger gun case

No one seems to dispute the basic facts of what happened in the Westridge Middle School classroom, though Donchez, the police chief, has said there’s more to the case than what has been made public.

On Sept. 18, a boy asked the girl, if you could kill five people in this class who would they be? The girl formed a gun with her fingers and pointed at four students one at a time, and then turned the pretend weapon toward herself, according to the girl’s mother, Vanessa McCaron. The Star does not identify juveniles charged with crimes.

Overnight, the school received several complaints on its bullying tip line, Donchez said. School leaders called the girl to the principal’s office. Principal Jeremy McDonnell led her outside, and school resource officer Dana Harrison, an employee of the police department, handcuffed her and placed her in a police car before she was driven to a juvenile detention facility. Prosecutors charged her with felony criminal threatening.

The girl, who now lives in California with her grandfather, faces juvenile detention, but at a hearing in Johnson County District Court on Tuesday, lawyers discussed sending her to a diversion program instead. They agreed to return to court Dec. 17.

In addition to involving the SRO, the principal suspended the the girl for violating Shawnee Mission’s policy against intimidation and bullying.

She’s not the first child to get in trouble for pointing a pretend pistol. In 2014 a 10-year-old Ohio boy was suspended for “goofing off” with friends on the playground, pointing a finger gun at a classmate’s head. During the previous school year, 419 students in Ohio, from various grade levels, were suspended because of “firearm look-a-likes.” Another 38 students were expelled for making the gesture.

Neither Shawnee Mission’s superintendent nor any member of the school board would talk with The Star about the details of the incident or the district policies on when police are involved in student discipline. But Shawnee Mission spokesman David Smith said the district and the Overland Park police officers who work in the schools “have a relationship.” While that relationship was formed by a memorandum of understanding, there is no way the document could address how to respond in every situation. So, “we work collaboratively,” Smith said.

For example, when the district receives a complaint through its bullying tip line, “sometimes we might consult the SRO to assess,” Smith said, “but not always. It depends.”

He said that while principals and teachers have minimal training in identifying signs from the person doing the bullying or the person being bullied, and little training in identifying signs of potential violence, they rely on law enforcement in the school.

School officials do advocate for what they think is “the right course of action” for disciplining students, Smith said, but “once the SRO is engaged we cannot say, ‘No, we won’t let you take that action.’”

Role of the SRO

The general role of a school resource officer, according to police departments, researchers and industry leaders, is to be an instructor, a counselor and a law enforcement officer.

The contract between the Shawnee Mission school district and the city of Overland Park prevents officers from acting as disciplinarians at schools. For unusual or temporary problems, however, they can step in and assist.

In 2014 the nation’s justice department and the education department issued guidelines on school discipline that warn school-based police officers to not become involved in routine school disciplinary matters. Now Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has challenged the old guidance but has not formed a new one.

Even with these guidelines, the job of an SRO is a balancing act, said Overland Park’s Deputy Chief Happer.

“They always start as somebody (students) can talk to, somebody they can confide in, but there are things that we do that (necessitate) taking the role of a traditional police officer,” Happer said.

Kupchik, the sociology professor, said, “schools and police agencies sometimes look at this as an all or nothing. … Either arrest or suspend or we do nothing.” Kupchik’s research focuses on juvenile justice and the policing of children in schools.

But when it comes to threats of violence, Happer said, Overland Park officers take everything seriously. They thoroughly investigate the threat and, if the officers believe a crime was committed, they make an arrest. “We don’t ignore anything, because history’s told us we can’t ignore anything,” Happer said.

That lines up with what the mother of the 13-year-old said she was told by the school’s SRO. “He said, ‘I will press charges against anyone who I think has broken the law,’” McCaron said.

Arresting a child for pointing finger guns at other students is “certainly against best practices” Kupchik said.

“If a student does something that might be threatening or intimidating, evidence shows the best way to respond is to talk to the student, to counsel them, to try to understand what they’re doing” he said. “Not to kick them out of school, most certainly not to involve them with the justice system but to intervene.”

Kupchik said he sympathizes with the police department’s desire to catch warning signs for potential school shooters.

Mac Hardy, director of operations for the National Association of School Resource Officers, said the SRO needs to protect both the student accused of the threat as well as the rest of the students in the school.

But, Kupchik said, the best way to do this is to build trust with the students in the school.

“In absence of actual violence or an actual weapon, there are ways to do that that have a much higher likelihood of success,” Kupchik said.

Happer acknowledged that jail time can damage a person. However, he said, action by an officer to prevent a school shooting is a net positive.

“If an officer takes information and gets the kid the help they need and they don’t commit suicide, I think that would be an awesome thing,” Happer said.

In Kansas City, police spokesman Jacob Becchina said arresting students is not part of the “overall mission” of SROs.

Though officers are prepared to arrest kids when necessary, they are meant to work with the administration and protect the schools from outside threats, he said.

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Photos by Getty Images; Photo illustration by Neil Nakahodo The Kansas City Star

A confusing partnership

While no Shawnee Mission school board members would speak about the incident, several candidates for their jobs questioned how it was handled.

“Based on what I’ve read about this, I don’t believe that was appropriate,” said Brian Koon of Overland Park, a former law enforcement officer who is running for the board in November’s election. “I don’t believe our students are served best when students are arrested in situations where no weapons are involved. To me, that is not a good use of resources. This is not what our SROs are supposed to be doing. They are supposed to be helping children, and I don’t see this helping children.”

He said he would rather see more counseling involved. “We are talking about 12- and 13-year-old children. We do not need to be bringing police into schools as much as we can avoid it. Our threshold for calling police needs to be pretty high.”

Koon said he believes that schools also need to be a safe place for children to make mistakes and “have consequences that fit the mistake.” He said that moving forward, the school board needs to set more definitive policies for when police should become involved in student discipline.

Lisa Feingold, who works in the cafeteria at Shawnee Mission’s Hocker Grove Middle School and is also running for the board, agrees.

The school resource officer, she said, is “confusing to parents. Imagine how confusing it is to a child.” Feingold said most parents don’t have information from the district explaining when SROs are “Officer Friendly” and when they are enforcing laws.

“If I were a student, I would be afraid to interact with the SRO for fear that could be used against me, and that is exactly the opposite of what we want to be happening in our schools.”

Jessica Hembree, who has two children in the district and is a candidate for the board, said she too wants district policy that “clarifies district practices on the roles of SROs in schools.”

Kupchik said that, as a parent, he has told his children that if a school resource officer suspects them of wrongdoing, do not talk until a parent gets there.

Officers in schools switch roles regularly and, Kupchik said, a student’s right to legal counsel when speaking to an officer is somewhat of a “gray area.” Students can speak to a school administrator without parents needing to be present, and an officer can sit in on that meeting.

Whatever the students say could be used against them if they’re criminally charged.

Smith, Shawnee Mission’s spokesman, said that in all cases where police are involved, the district policy is to “inform parents, because generally we want parents to know and to be present.” But he said in some cases, parents were not present while children were interviewed by police.

Hardy, with the SRO association, said the laws surrounding SRO conversations with students vary by state and locality. In general, he said, once officers know a crime has been committed, they should read a student the Miranda rights.

“We’re trying to keep the school safe. We want the parents to be involved,” Hardy said. “That’s part of that community that helps keeps schools safe.”

But Blue Springs Police Sgt. Allen Kintz said that in his department, students do not need to be informed of those rights until they are in custody. So a detective would read those rights, not an SRO.

Impact on children

Overland Park’s Deputy Chief Happer said that, based on SRO data from the last three years, “there’s not an overabundance of arrests.” He said an SRO’s primary role is to build relationships.

Their very presence in a school, however, tends to increase the number of students arrested for low-level crimes, according to Kupchik. For instance, he said, minor fights that don’t result in an injury and don’t involve a weapon could still land a kid in handcuffs.

In a case like the finger gun incident, there’s no definite right or wrong answer, said Christopher Depue, spokesman for the Lee’s Summit Police Department.

“Is that a red flag or is that just kids talking because some of them say dumb things? I don’t know. But you would hate to miss that,” Depue said. “My question has always been — as an officer and as a parent myself — how do you reintegrate that kid. … How do you bring that kid back into an education environment?”

Mental health officials have that same concern.

Jennifer Maze, deputy director of the UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, says that while the finger gun arrest “sounds quite traumatizing … and out of proportion to the behavior,” it also traumatizes other children in the classroom.

Blue Springs’ police Sgt. Kintz said his department often looks to other remedies before arresting students. When they do take that step, he said, they look to turn it into a positive learning experience for the student, and generally the student is offered a lesser punishment.

“We prefer to go to the lowest level that we need and can, and sometimes we just don’t have a choice about making an arrest,” Kintz said.

Hardy said that it’s important for officers to understand the teenage mind and that, often, middle and high school students don’t think before they act.

His SRO association advises officers to arrest only when absolutely necessary.

“Most of the times when you (make an arrest) in public education, those students are going to be back in that classroom tomorrow,” Hardy said. “Did you fix the problem?”

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

How we did this story

Following reporting on an Overland Park student arrested for pointing a finger gun, Star reporters Mará Rose Williams and Katie Bernard reached out to area police departments and school districts with questions on the role of school resource officers and the impact of arresting children.

They obtained data on the prevalence of such arrests and spoke with experts and industry leaders on policies and best practices for policing in schools.

Related stories from Kansas City Star

Mará has written on all things education for The Star for 20 years, including issues of school safety, teen suicide, universal pre-K programs, college costs, campus protests and university branding.
Katie Bernard covers Kansas crime, cops and courts for the Kansas City Star. She joined the Star in May of 2019. Katie studied journalism and political science at the University of Kansas.
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