ACLU criticizes school resource officer role

Rhode Island ACLU sends letter to Pawtucket school district after apparent incident of excessive force

Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote a letter to the Pawtucket School District urging it to reconsider the presence of school resource officers in its schools, as well as the current Memorandum of Understanding between the school district and the police department.

The letter, addressed to Pawtucket School District Superintendent Patti DiCenso, came in response to what appeared to be excessive use of force by an SRO at Tolman High School in Pawtucket. A YouTube video from Oct. 14 shows SRO Jared Boudreault handcuffing a student, Ivander DeBurgo, then forcefully throwing the student’s 14-year-old brother, Tyler DeBurgo, to the floor. Students held a protest the morning after the incident during which eight students and two adults were arrested.

Brown detailed a significant number of issues with the MOU in his letter, which he also forwarded to other school districts. His primary concerns include the amount of control that “school officials cede when they allow SROs in their schools.” SROs are not required to attend any sort of training “in addressing behavioral issues or understanding the needs of the children they serve.” SROs can also remove students from the school without notifying the administration, Brown wrote in the letter.

He also addressed the portion of the MOU which states that if a student is charged with a crime by an SRO, the officer’s actions “will be supported by the principal … in court.” Brown cites this as a problem, writing that the policy operated “as if there would never be a circumstance when a school official might question the propriety of a criminal charge brought by an SRO against a student.”

Rico Vota, the communications and constituent affairs officer with Mayor of Pawtucket Donald Grebien’s administration, said Grebien has been working with the school department, police department and Tolman students to put together a new MOU. Vota said he is unsure when the new MOU will be released.

Brown noted that schools have no input in selecting SROs. In fact, Boudreault, the officer in Pawtucket, was under investigation a few months prior to becoming an SRO for “excessive force following a video-taped incident where (he) pepper-sprayed and repeatedly hit a man with his nightstick,” Brown wrote.

The RIACLU has previously had concerns regarding the use of SROs in schools. Similar incidents have likely been occurring over the past several years, but have not been reported directly to the ACLU, said Hillary Davis, policy associate at the RIACLU. Social media has enabled increased communication between the community and the ACLU surrounding incidents such as the one in Pawtucket, Davis said.

Boudreault had “a history of ‘acting tough’ with (students), swearing at them on occasion and shoving one student up against a locker for taking a piece of pizza out of the cafeteria,” the Valley Breeze reported. Superintendent DiCenso told the Valley Breeze she had not “heard a complaint about Boudreault in the past” but believed the students’ claims that previous incidents had occurred.

Brown wrote in his letter to DiCenso that the presence of the SRO “only exacerbated the situation” and “led not only to the physical injury of two students, but the use of pepper spray on protesting students and the subsequent arrest of ten individuals.”

“We haven’t gotten a direct response (from the school district) that I’m aware of,” Davis said, adding, “We would hope school districts would be willing to talk to us.”

“We feel this is the school’s responsibility to ensure the safety of the students on their campus” Davis said.

The Pawtucket School Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.