Avon and Somerset Police Review Police in Schools after Legal Action

26 March 2021

Avon and Somerset Police (ASP) has agreed to review its governance of so-called Safer Schools Officers (SSO) across the region amidst concerns that their presence could have ‘disproportionately negative consequences’ for black and minority ethnic groups.

The move comes in response to legal action brought against Avon and Somerset Police on behalf of the family of a young mixed-race boy from Bristol who was wrongly accused of stealing a cookie from the school canteen shortly after he had started there in year 7.

The incident was reported to his teacher and the school SSO by the catering staff, with the officer - in uniform- then attending to have a ‘chat’ with the boy, during which his mother claims various assumptions were made about his background and veiled threats were made relating to criminal records which left him ‘petrified’.

The boy was later cleared of any wrongdoing by the school, but the impact of the conversation he had with the SSO has had a lasting impact on him and left him reluctant to attend class.

Concerned by the exchange and its effect on her son, his mother instructed Education Law Solicitors at Simpson Millar to pursue legal action against Avon and Somerset Police over the failure to monitor the equality implications of having police in schools. A Letter Before Claim was issued to the Chief Constable of the Avon and Somerset Police.

While the legal challenge did not question the principle of deploying police officers in schools, Solicitors acting for the family say it highlighted ‘significant concerns’ over the failure to monitor, assess and understand the equalities implications of putting police officers in schools across the region.

Avon and Somerset Police has now agreed to carry out a review of its governance of SSOs, saying it will ‘carry out an equality assessment into the use of SSOs in schools in the ASP police area with particular focus on formal interactions and interventions by SSOs in respect of children of different races’.

In a letter of response to the family’s Solicitor, Avon and Somerset Police also said it would ‘consider whether SSOs require bespoke equalities training in addition to the equalities training undertaken by all ASP officers as part of the review’.

The move follows a similar case which was brought by Simpson Millar against the Metropolitan Police in London last year, which also resulted in a review of governance, with the Metropolitan Police agreeing to collect and analyse data on the equality implications of the deployment of Safer Schools Officers in schools in the Metropolitan Police area.

Dan Rosenberg, an Education Law Solicitor at Simpson Millar who is representing the family, said, “Deploying police officers in schools may have benefits for students and the wider school community, and no one is disputing that.

“However, there is a risk that the presence of police officers in schools may have disproportionately negative consequences for black and ethnic minority boys and/or children with special education needs and disabilities, causing them to be drawn into the criminal justice system unnecessarily.

“In this particular case, a mixed-race boy was wrongly accused of stealing a cookie, and instead of the school dealing with the matter in a fair and balanced manner, he received what for a year 7 was a terrifying talking to from a police officer.

“We’re encouraged that Avon and Somerset Police have followed the Metropolitan Police in agreeing to monitor and address the equality implications of deploying police officers in schools, which simply cannot be done without the collection and analysis of relevant data.

“It is our hope that other constabularies across England and Wales also follow suit and that lessons learnt are shared across all police forces in order to ensure that meaningful change is implemented, and best practice adopted across the board.”

The boy’s mother said: “This was a terrifying episode for my son, which led to him being too anxious to attend school for a number of months. I believe that the colour of his skin was the prime contributing factor in respect of the way that he was treated and the assumptions that were made about him. 

It is in nobody’s interests for these sorts of interactions to occur. It is extremely distressing for children, and destroys the trust that police need to build up within communities. 

“I am pleased that Avon and Somerset Police have recognised that they need to take the necessary steps to monitor and consider the equality implications of placing officers in schools and would strongly urge the Minister in charge of policing to encourage all other forces to do the same.”

Further to a complaint filed by the family with the school, it has since made a number of changes to the way it operates, not least in reducing the ability of catering staff and others to involve the SSO in low-level situations.

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