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Local Opinion: What AZ schools must consider with police
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Local Opinion: What AZ schools must consider with police

The following column is the opinion and analysis of the author.

Across the country over the last week, school districts have been rethinking the role of law enforcement in schools, as part of the national reckoning on police violence and racism. Several districts have already severed ties with local police departments, with many more considering similar measures. TUSD, Tucson’s largest school district, announced on Friday that it is reconsidering its use of law enforcement officers in its schools.

But the role of law enforcement officers on campus is not the only factor that matters. Arizona state law requires teachers and schools to report students to law enforcement in a host of situations, even when no crime occurred.

Arizona’s mandatory reporting law is one of the most baffling and troublesome. It requires teachers and schools to report students to law enforcement for causing any nonaccidental injury to other children. According to the Arizona attorney general, this means that teachers must report any cut, bruise, or scratch that was not an accident — even if the student “lacks the cognitive ability to control his or her behavior or understand right from wrong.”

There is no exception — not for young students in elementary school, not for students with significant disabilities who cannot tell right from wrong. It is difficult to understand what role a law enforcement officer should play if, for example, a kindergartener with severe autism hits another child in class and causes a scratch — yet the law requires teachers to report this incident to law enforcement nonetheless. Even when the behavior is not a crime.

Teachers may feel wary about alerting law enforcement officers to student discipline issues, with concerns about racism, bias, and police violence. But the mandatory reporting law puts teachers in a challenging position: report the student or potentially face criminal consequences. Teachers and school officials who fail to make a report under this statute face criminal liability themselves. In a case that was widely publicized on local news in 2017, Tucson police arrested a middle school vice principal and school counselor for failure to report a sexual offense, a Class 6 felony with a presumptive sentence of one year imprisonment, after a 12-year-old student allegedly touched another student’s breast in class.

For educators trying to find the best response to student misbehavior — whether responding to a kindergartener scratching a classmate or a middle school student engaged in sexual misconduct — the stakes are high. The consequences teachers might face by not reporting their students to law enforcement are considerable.

The law is just one example of a law that demonstrates how enmeshed our education and criminal-justice systems are. In truth, a lot of student misbehavior could be considered criminal. Taking lunch money could be theft; a schoolyard scuffle could be assault. Mandatory reporting laws like ours in Arizona configure broad swaths of student conduct as potentially criminal, or at least worthy of attention by law enforcement officers, even when school officials justifiably believe that the behavior is better addressed by educators instead of police.

As school districts are considering whether to sever ties with local police departments, it is important to remember that policing student behavior goes far beyond police presence on campus. Limiting the number of law enforcement officers in schools is just the beginning.

Diana Newmark is an assistant clinical professor of law at the James E. Rogers College of Law. She is also an assistant professor of practice and faculty fellow at the University of Arizona’s College of Education.

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