Authors

Elsa Haag

Document Type

Supreme Court Commentaries

Publication Date

3-17-2021

Keywords

disability rights, education law, civil rights, school resource officers, Fourth Amendment

Subject Category

Constitutional Law

Abstract

Over the past forty years, students in the U.S. have experienced increasingly strict school discipline policies and increased police presence in schools. Sent into schools with the aim of improving security in the wake of mass shootings, school resource officers (SROs) are sworn law enforcement regularly assigned to schools. But there is a paucity of evidence that SROs are effective in preventing mass shootings or provide other significant benefits. Instead, research shows that the presence of SROs results in students achieving less and experiencing more physical and emotional harm, with long-term implications and costs for individuals and communities. As trained law enforcement officers, SROs tend to use justice system responses to address minor student misbehavior.

Escalating SRO interactions and negative outcomes fall disproportionately on disabled students and students of color, adding to the already staggering educational and societal barriers that these students face. But plaintiffs face daunting odds if they look to the courts for recourse for SRO misconduct under the Constitution and federal law. This Note describes the applicability of the Fourth Amendment, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to SRO actions—and the considerable barriers to success on claims under these laws.

States often have the authority and latitude to impose more robust protections, especially in the arenas of education and law enforcement. Yet state courts’ interpretations of their own state constitutional provisions tend to mirror federal analogues in the phenomenon called “lockstepping” or “judicial federalism.” Using Massachusetts as a case study, this Note examines whether there are state law mechanisms that are more protective of students with disabilities than federal provisions, and whether such laws provide additional avenues for relief.

Drawing on interviews with advocates, this Note argues that advocates, states, localities, and courts can—and should—avoid reflexive lockstepping and take advantage of the broader latitude offered by state constitutions and state and local law to address the quintessentially local issues of education and law enforcement. Increasing recognition of the harms that stem from having SROs in schools and invigorated movements to shift resources from SROs to other resources provide an opportunity for state and local legislators to promote school safety in ways that are more protective of all students.

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