By Kevin Lungwitz
Campus security is a topic that looms over public education. Recent school shootings have made law enforcement a higher priority with increased visibility on campuses. By law, the principal is the “instructional leader” of the campus who shall “approve all teacher and staff appointments for that principal’s campus,” and “evaluate … personnel assigned to the campus.”1 We know the principal supervises all instructional, administrative and support staff, but what about law enforcement? Campus administration rarely, if ever, approves the assignment of, or evaluates, a law enforcement officer. What authority, if any, does the principal have over law enforcement assigned to the campus?2
Law Enforcement Options for School Districts
The two most common and visible types of school law enforcement officers are (1) School District Peace Officers (SDPOs) and; (2) School Resource Officers (SROs).3 SDPOs are employed by the school district and are supervised by the school district chief of police (or designee). The chief is directly accountable to the superintendent (not to a designee of the superintendent).4 SROs are employed by a city or county and assigned to a school district or campus by way of a “memo of understanding” (MOU) between a school district and the city or county. The MOU governs not only the financial arrangement between the school district and city or county, but it should also address the duties and authority of the SRO. Chances are, you’ve dealt with one of these two types of law enforcement officials patrolling in your district or assigned to your campus.
New Training Requirement for School Law Enforcement Officers
Legislation passed this year requires every SDPO and SRO (regardless of school district or campus enrollment) to have at least 16 hours of training approved by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement on child development and psychology, de-escalation techniques including techniques for limiting the use of force, positive behavioral interventions and conflict resolution, restorative practices, and related issues.5 With some exceptions, officers have 180 days to complete the training. The training requirement was supposed to be adopted by your school board by October 1, 2019.
Also, every SDPO and SRO shall complete an active shooter response training program approved by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.6
Law Enforcement Authority
The board of trustees of the school district shall determine the duties of SDPOs and SROs, and include them in (1) the district improvement plan; (2) the student code of conduct; (3) any memorandum of understanding (MOU) regarding SROs; and (4) any other campus or district document describing the role of peace officers, school resource officers, or security personnel in the district.7 In determining the duties of SDPOs and SROs the board shall coordinate with district “campus behavior coordinators” (that might be you) and others, to ensure that law enforcement is not tasked “with behavioral or administrative duties better addressed by other district employees.”8
Principals operate according to school board policies, often suggested by the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB). On the other hand, school district police departments usually have their own operation policies and manuals that look completely different than TASB generated policies. If the district employs its own police force, you might be able to find the law enforcement policy manuals on the district website.
SROs work under the authority of their city or county employer, as modified by a memo of understanding (MOU) between the school district and the city or county.
By law, the SDPO and SRO perform law enforcement duties for the school district that must include protecting: (1) the safety and welfare of any person in the jurisdiction of the SDPO or SRO, as determined by the school board; and (2) the property of the school district.9 An SDPO and an SRO have all the powers, privileges and immunities of state commissioned peace officers, may enforce all laws, including city ordinances, and may assist other law enforcement agencies.
On the other side of that coin are important limitations on an SDPOs and SROs duties: A school district may not assign or require as duties of a school district peace officer, a school resource officer or security personnel: (1) routine student discipline or school administrative tasks; or (2) contact with students unrelated to the law enforcement duties of the peace officer, resource officer, or security personnel. (Though this does not prohibit an SDPO or SRO from having informal contact with a student unrelated to their assigned duties).10
Who’s the Boss?
Running a campus is complicated enough. Add to the mix a serious security issue and matters can get murky pretty quickly. For instance, state law allows either the school principal, the SDPO or the SRO to eject any person from the school property and refuse re-entry if: (1) The person poses a substantial risk of harm to any person; or (2) The person behaves in a manner that is inappropriate for a school setting.11
What if the principal disagrees with the SDPO or SRO or vice-versa? Arguably, each can assert their independent authority. Most likely, this disagreement will probably play out at the superintendent’s office or at the school board where the lines of authority meet.
What if the principal engages the SDPO or SRO for support, but the SDPO or SRO refuses? What if the SDPO or SRO engages but then the principal disagrees with how the SDPO or SRO handles the situation? Can the principal direct the SDPO or SRO to stand down? These are complicated and fact-specific issues that might arise in volatile situations, for which there are no easy answers. If campus administration believes the SDPO or SRO has behaved unprofessionally, at the very least, the incident should be promptly documented and shared with your supervisor and the peace officer’s supervisor.12
Fourth Amendment issues could arise. The Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures. Many exceptions notwithstanding, law enforcement needs probable cause and a warrant to search you and your belongings. At school, however, students have limited protection. In a school setting, a principal does not need probable cause or a warrant to search a student or the student’s property. An administrative search of a student or student’s property need only be “justified at its inception” and “reasonable in scope.”13 Which standard applies when an SDPO or SRO conducts a search in a school setting? It will greatly depend on the facts, including whether school administration or law enforcement initiated or conducted the search. In the heat of these moments one can easily envision the lines of authority becoming confused or blurred.
The principal is the boss of the campus but the SDPO or SRO must work collaboratively toward the common objective of running a safe campus. The principal is most likely not in the SDPOs or the SROs chain of command, unless exceptions have been articulated by the school board. If you have questions or have dealt with law enforcement issues on your campus, you may be in a position to assist your school board. Since new legislation tasks the school board with defining the duties of the SDPO and SRO, this may be the time and place to plug into the process.
Kevin Lungwitz is TEPSA’s Outside General Counsel.
1Tex. Educ. Code Sec. 11.202.
2Many thanks to Director of Legal Services, Joy Baskin, and Staff Attorney, Mark Tilley, with the Texas Association of School Boards, for providing information and guidance to the author on these matters.
3Tex. Educ. Code Sec. 37.081. A school district can also designate one or more school marshals, a school employee authorized to carry a handgun on campus, and other types of security personnel. Tex. Educ. Code Sec. 37.0811; Sec. 37.081(a). This article is not intended to address the myriad ways a school district can provide security.
4Tex. Educ. Code Sec. 37.081(f).
5Tex. Occupations Code Sec. 1701.262.
6Tex. Educ. Code Sec. 37.0812.
7Tex. Educ. Code Sec. 37.081 (d).
8Tex. Educ. Code Sec. 37.081 (d-4).
9 Tex. Educ. Code Sec. 37.081 (d-1).
10Tex. Educ. Code Sec. 37.081 (d-2), (d-3).
11Tex. Educ. Code §37.105.
12 Law enforcement complaints must be made in accordance to Tex. Gov’t Code Sec. 614.022
13New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325 (1985)
TEPSA News, January/February 2020, Vol 77, No 1
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Note: Information from Legal Ease is believed to be correct upon publication, but is not warranted and should not be considered legal advice. Please contact TEPSA or your school district attorney before taking any legal action, as specific facts or circumstances may cause a different legal outcome.