The five-second cellphone video does not show what initiated the school police officer’s violent attack on a teenage student at a Baltimore school, only the armed officer powerfully slapping the young man three times about the head and then kicking him.
“Get the [expletive] out of here,” the officer says as the teenager, who was later identified as a student at the school, retreats.
The reason for the attack didn’t matter as the video shot last week sparked outrage from parents, school officials and city leaders. It also rekindled a national debate over the increasingly common practice of stationing police officers in schools.
“It’s not just a bad cop here or a bad cop there,” said Harold Jordan, senior policy advocate for the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Police are increasingly involved in schools in ways that go beyond a narrow but important concern for safety on the campus.”
In bygone years, police were deployed to schools to direct traffic, provide security at events or respond to emergencies. But tough-on-crime policies of the 1990s and the advent of mass shootings at schools led to more and more school districts assigning full-time, armed officers to patrol the hallways and grounds.
Beyond the occasional case of excessive use of force, the downside has included a rise in the “school-to-prison pipeline,” as police become involved in routine disciplinary matters, Mr. Jordan said.
He noted that research shows minorities are disproportionately involved in the juvenile justice system as a result of police presence at schools.
“There is very little regulation of police activity at schools,” he said.
Tens of thousands of school resource officers, often carrying sidearms, are deployed at public schools across the country. About 63 percent of middle schools and 64 percent of high schools had officers patrolling the campuses during the 2013-14 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Advocates for using school resource officers argue that incidents such as in Baltimore are rare and the police do more than protect students from mass shootings or other crimes.
“The purpose of having police officers in school is really to introduce students to men and women in uniform. They are introduced to police officers as someone who is helpful,” said Bob Farrace, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
“The objective is not to incarcerate kids,” he said. “The objective is to help kids and keep them out of trouble, and create an environment that is constructive to learning.”
However, he said having a trusted lawman on campus can give students someone to go to report suspicious behavior and possibly prevent school shootings or other tragedies.
President Obama has backed school policing. After the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the president proposed funding 100,000 more police for schools in addition to tougher gun laws.
In Baltimore, the officer captured on video, Anthony C. Spence, 44, and a female officer seen standing behind him were both placed on paid administrative leave, said Baltimore City Schools spokeswoman Edie House Foster.
Baltimore City Police and the Maryland Attorney General opened investigations.
City schools CEO Gregory Thornton said he would be reviewing the training and selection of school police officers. And other school officials said they were considering outfitting officers with body cameras.
Ms. Foster said the schools chief is “looking at a variety of ways to address the issues of trust in the police and school safety in the district.”
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she was “appalled” by what she saw on the video.
However, school and city officials did not suggest that there was any reason to revisit the policy of stationing police in schools.
A similar outcome followed after a video caught a sheriff’s deputy assigned to a high school in Richland County, South Carolina, pull a teenage girl from her desk and drag her across the floor.
The deputy, Ben Fields, was fired. The Justice Department opened an investigation into whether the young woman’s civil rights were violated.
The sheriff’s office also adopted a new policy of only responding to criminal infractions in school, which aimed to put routine discipline in the hands of school administrators but still left a gray area, such as when a class disruption is a case of disturbing the peace.
“I do think that the issue is getting more attention. More school districts and school communities are talking about it,” Mr. Jordan said. “But I don’t see any real cutback at this moment. It may be too soon to say.”