Ames' school resource officer program will end next fall. What happens when SROs charge students?
Earlier this year, a 12-year-old girl was upset in the Ames Middle School principal's office.
Staff asked the school resource officer and another principal "to assist due to her aggression," according to an incident summary from the Ames Police Department. After allegedly kicking and biting the principals, the student was handcuffed by the officer, whom she also allegedly bit. Then, police put the girl in a patrol car and took her to the police department.
The incident is one example of how, when Ames police are involved in student behavior issues — more often than not at the direction of school staff — kids who act out may face charges of disorderly conduct or felony assault.
Since the fall of 2018, there have been 61 incidents in which Ames students have been criminally charged at school, according to data obtained by the Ames Tribune. In at least 36 of them, officers were called by a teacher, principal, guidance counselor or other staff member.
Starting next school year, incidents like these might play out differently. The Ames school board voted unanimously Monday to cease its school resource officer program in the fall, ending over 25 years of some sort of police presence in the district. Currently, there is one school resource officer working in the district.
As Ames prepares to end its school resource officer program, here's what records show about how police work in the district.
Alcohol, tobacco and drug-related charges most common at school
Since the fall of 2018, 112 citations have been issued to Ames' middle and high school students.
Fifty-four of the charges were related to alcohol, tobacco or drugs; 29 were for disorderly conduct or assaults; 14 were for theft or property damage; nine were for sexual exploitation, abuse or invasion of privacy; two were for harassment; two were for resisting an officer; one student faced weapon charges for allegedly carrying a stun gun and pocketknives; and one student was referred to juvenile court for a terrorism threat after he allegedly said he was planning a school shooting in 2019.
Last fall, a school resource officer charged a 15-year-old student with possessing tobacco underage because it was allegedly the second time he had been on school property with cigarettes, according to an incident summary.
In an email to the Ames Tribune, police spokesperson Cmdr. Jason Tuttle said there is "some discretion for these types of offenses" that depend on the facts of the case.
"The SROs also confer with the building principals before issuing citations or charges in most cases. It should be noted possession of tobacco is a civil penalty and not a criminal offense," Tuttle said.
Black students are charged at disproportionately higher rates
While Black students make up 10% of the current Ames school district population, 30 of the 71 students given citations since 2018 — or 42% — have been Black. In contrast, white students make up 66% of the district population, and 40 students given citations during that time — or 56% — have been white. The race of one of the students charged was not identified.
Black students were particularly overrepresented in disorderly conduct and assault charges, comprising 15 of the 21 students given those citations.
Some of those citations resulted from seemingly minor offenses, like a middle schooler charged with assault after she "intentionally walked into (another student) and hit her with her shoulder," according to police. In that 2019 incident, a school administrator reported the student to a school resource officer, who referred her to juvenile court.
Tuttle said many factors go into determining whether a school fight — which most disorderly conduct and assault charges stem from — rises to the level of a crime.
"Many of these incidents are dependent on the facts of the case and whether a victim or the school wants to pursue charges," Tuttle said. "There is a difference between crimes against society (disorderly conduct, public intoxication, drugs) and victim-based crime (assault, theft, criminal mischief)."
Increased fighting at Ames High School not reflected in number of citations
Assistant Superintendent of Schools Jeff Hawkins told the Ames Tribune this fall that at times there was more than one fight a week in the district. But there has not been a significant uptick in disorderly conduct or assault citations this school year. This semester, only two students have been charged in connection with a fight with other students.
District spokesperson Eric Smidt told the Ames Tribune earlier this year that school staff report all fights to school resource officers. Smidt did not respond to a question this week on whether that is still the case.
Administrators press charges against students for theft
In Ames schools, being accused of stealing a school-issued electronic device may result in a referral to juvenile court.
This fall, a 15-year-old student was apprehended by Ames police after school hours and accused of taking a school Chromebook. According to police, he "was not allowed to have a Chromebook due to past behavior." Ames High School administrators requested theft charges against the student, who was given a citation for fifth-degree theft.
In late 2018, a 14-year-old student was accused of stealing another student’s e-reader and school-issued iPad. The owner of the e-reader declined to press charges, but Ames High administrators chose to pursue charges for the allegedly stolen iPad. The 14-year-old was charged with fourth-degree theft.
When asked earlier this year if students are given school discipline in addition to criminal citations, Smidt said, "When a school discipline incident occurs, a school consequence is assigned."
"Whether or not a citation or charge is issued for a student is determined by the victim," Smidt said. "If the school is considered the victim, there is a discipline guidance document that provides parameters for consistency of administration of policy."
Smidt did not respond to a question this week asking about the benefit of pressing charges against students for stealing school devices, instead of just suspending students or giving them detention.
In a statement to the Ames Tribune on Wednesday, Tuttle said the Ames Police Department has appreciated its partnership with the Ames Community School District over the past two decades.
"We look forward to a continued partnership, but it will look different in the future. We are committed to doing our part to make our schools safe," Tuttle said.