Their mission is to serve and protect our students. For many kids, they are seen as role models and mentors.
School Resource Officers are a common fixture in schools across the country, but are some going too far when it comes to arresting students?
One Arkansas mom thinks so after her 11-year-old daughter left school in a police car rather than a school bus.
On Feb. 21 2023, 11-year-old Hannah Kelley, a then 5th-grader at Frank Mitchell Intermediate School in Vilonia, said she and a friend got into a fight with another student before class.
“I remember the bully walked up to us and just started saying really mean words,” Hannah Kelley said. “I gently pushed her and told her to back off and leave us alone.”
Hannah said the girl then pushed her into a bench, leaving her with a bruised leg. According to Hannah’s mom, Hannah got in-school suspension but was still able to attend a field trip that same day.
Three days later Hannah found herself in handcuffs.
“The principal said, ‘You’re getting arrested,’” Hannah Kelley said. “I was pretty scared at that moment.”
According to an incident report from the Vilonia Police Department, School Resource Officer James Gibson was asked by the principal at the time to review the results of the investigation into the fight.
Three days after the fight, the school resource officer called all three students from class and arrested them for disorderly conduct.
“These parents and people were watching us and kids,” Hannah Kelley said. “I felt like I was going to cry because I had never been arrested before and the only time I’ve been in a police car was when we got in a car accident.”
Hannah’s mom Emily is pushing for answers.
“Still to this day it feels surreal,” Emily Kelley said.
Kelley filed a civil lawsuit against the district and the police department.
“For us it was never about that one individual,” she said. “It’s about ‘Why is this happening?’”
KARK 4 News wanted to know how often students get arrested at school and if it is common practice to arrest a student for something days later.
The Chief of Vilonia Police declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit and multiple calls and emails to the Superintendent of the Vilonia School District were not returned.
KARK 4 News reached out to several police departments in districts of various sizes to try to find answers.
In the 2022-2023 school year, the sole SRO in the Vilonia School District, made up of about 3,000 students, recorded 69 arrests and 40 citations.
The Greenbrier School District is a little bigger, averaging about 3,700 students. Between the two SROs, there were three arrests and 69 citations.
In the South Conway County School District, which has less than 2,400 students, four SROs recorded a total of five arrests and 16 citations.
“Usually what we try to do is try to do more of a diversion program before it gets to the court system,” School Resource Officer Phil Blaylock said.
Blaylock has been an SRO in the South Conway County School District for nearly 18 years. He calls arresting a student a last resort.
“We want to give them a chance. We want to give them the benefit of the doubt,” Officer Blaylock said. “We just have to remember that their brains are still developing.”
Blaylock said training in areas like mental health, bullying and disabilities is essential when it comes to working with kids.
“There are so many different things that you have to deal with instead of just your regular patrol investigator stuff,” Blaylock said. “You have to wear all those hats when you’re in the school.”
According to the Arkansas Center for School Safety, in 2021, a law was passed requiring SROs to complete a 40-hour basic school resource officer training program within 18 months of being assigned or employed by the school district.
At the time of Hannah’s arrest, Gibson was less than a year into the role and had not yet completed that training.
Laura Monteverdi: “Essentially right now an officer can go from working the streets to working in a school and not have that training for 18 months?”
Dr. Cheryl May: “That’s correct.”
Dr. Cheryl May, director of the Criminal Justice Institute and Arkansas Center for School Safety, said that timeframe was decided on to give officers time to complete the required training.
She said due to funding and resource restraints, all training courses they’re able to offer are either at max capacity or have a waitlist. In addition, many smaller police departments simply don’t have the ability to provide a backup when an SRO is in training.
“Ideally having them have that training before they actually get into that position might be important in determining if someone is going to function well in a position like that, but from a practical standpoint, it became very difficult,” May explained.
May does agree that what needs to change is schools relying on SROs to handle situations that can and should be handled by the administration.
“I can’t say it any clearer than this, but SROs should never be involved in discipline,” May stated.
Kelley said the charges against Hannah were eventually dropped. However, she is still adamantly pursuing this lawsuit in the hopes that how situations are handled will change moving forward.
“I think there is a huge opportunity for them to have a different kind of presence in the school,” Emily Kelley said.
Hannah said she is hopeful school officials can learn from the past and move forward.
“It should have been handled where we should have just sat in a room and like apologized and all that because at the police station, we all did say sorry,” Hannah Kelley said.
As part of the investigation, KARK 4 News learned that in February 2022, prior to Gibson being assigned to the Vilonia School District as SRO, he was suspended for three days for violating policy while he was off duty when he allegedly lost his temper, cursed and pushed a woman.
KARK 4 News did speak with Gibson on the phone Thursday night but he declined a formal interview at this time.
KARK 4 News learned that Gibson resigned from the Vilonia Police Department on Monday, Oct. 23, days before this story aired. Vilonia Police Chief Brad McNew confirmed that Gibson no longer works for the department and is no longer an SRO in the Vilonia School District.
He said a new SRO has not yet been picked.
As far as the pending lawsuit, a mediation was scheduled for late October, however that was rescheduled at the request of the Vilonia School District.