Should Students be Taught to Interact With Police?

Texas bill would require schools to teach how to interact with law enforcement.

by Jessica Priest, Victoria Advocate, Texas / November 1, 2016
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(TNS) - Texas Sen. John Whitmire will file a bill requiring schools to teach ninth-graders the duties and responsibilities of police officers and the proper way to interact with them.

If it is passed as proposed, the class could be taught as early as the 2018-2019 school year.

What happened to Sandra Bland prompted Whitmire to draft this legislation. Bland died in a Waller County Jail after she was pulled over by a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper for failing to signal a lane change.

Whitmire, D-Houston, told the Texas Tribune earlier this month that both Bland and the trooper should have taken a deep breath first.

"This is an effort not necessarily to deal with the past but look forward to the future and try to educate a rising generation that the police are your friends," said Luther Jones, Whitmire's legislative assistant.

Neither the Texas Education Agency nor the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas would comment on bill because it has not been officially filed or passed.

Pro: Students need to learn how to talk to police

Earlier this month, Richard Varga wrote a letter to the editor advising others on how to behave when stopped by police.

Afterward, Varga got to take his own advice when he was pulled over for going 85 mph in a 70-mph speed zone on his way to work as a physical therapist.

"I shut my engine off and opened up all the windows and waited," Varga said Friday. "A young Hispanic police officer walked to the right passenger side, and I said 'Good morning, sir. I apologize. I was speeding. I set my cruise control, and I don't normally make mistakes like this, but this time, it's entirely my fault.'"

Varga said after the officer asked where he was going, the officer gave him a half smile.

"He said, 'Slow down,' and he walked away, and I thought, 'Damn, it works,'" Varga said.

Varga grew up in Hungary, where he said he had no rights. When he was 10, an officer handcuffed him while he was playing with other children. It wasn't until he became a U.S. citizen and joined the U.S. Air Force that his hatred for law enforcement turned into camaraderie.

Varga, now 62, supports teaching ninth-graders how to interact with police, and so does Victoria Police Chief J.J. Craig.

They said part of the reason they favor such a proposal is parents are neglecting to teach their children how to treat others with respect.

Craig did not think schools could dedicate an entire semester to such a class, nor should they, but he hoped the class would cover the legal aspects of a traffic stop, such as what probable cause is and what threshold must be met for an officer to detain someone.

"We need to stress that the side of a road is not the place or the avenue to contest the legality of the ticket or the stop," Craig added.

Craig said one avenue for relief is court. A person can lodge a complaint about a stop or officer at the police station. There, several Victoria residents have already viewed body and dashboard camera footage of their stops, and some were satisfied afterward, he said.

Craig said traffic stops are the most dangerous situations for officers. The most common cause of deaths for officers in the U.S. in 2016 was automobile accidents and vehicular assaults, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.

Craig said he would ask students not to forfeit their rights but rather to understand that officers who make traffic stops are seeking basic information, and they are legally entitled to carry out their duties.

Area law enforcement, meanwhile, continue to try to heal the divide between them and the public, a divide that's been deepened by officer-involved shootings across the nation in recent years.

On Oct. 4, they participated in National Night Out, which celebrates police-community partnerships.

In Victoria, there were 53 registered National Night Out parties and 40 officers who attended.

Calhoun County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Bryon Prall and his wife, Annette, also obtained an 8-week old Shiloh shepherd named Faith in January.

Now 80 pounds, Faith is a trained therapy dog and has made appearances at Warrior's Weekend, the county fair and area schools.

Prall said she opens the line of communication between law enforcement and people of all ages.

Con: Parents should set example for children

Victoria County Criminal District Attorney Stephen Tyler said he was at first "repulsed" by the bill Texas Sen. John Whitmire proposed.

Tyler thought teaching a class about interacting with law enforcement sent the wrong message: that students were likely to get harassed by police in their lifetime.

Tyler said that is not as common as people think.

He has taught his 12-year-old daughter to be respectful to everyone and thought other parents should do the same.

"The best class for our kids is the example we set, and that class is always in session," Tyler said.

To that end, he said, parents should not let their kids see them badmouth people in authority. He said they should also set a good example when they hold authority, even when out to eat and interacting with a waiter or waitress.

"If you treat them roughly, they are going to think that people in authority have the right to be rude," Tyler said.

Sean Summers, who has lived in Victoria for 13 years, also is against a class.

"Teaching our most impressionable citizens that they must forfeit all rights to this person who may or may not be acting in their best interest is ridiculous and dangerous. 'Comply, then complain' sounds very similar to the surrendering of rights found in dictator-based countries," Summers said.

Although he has not had a bad encounter with law enforcement, he said, his Hispanic fiancee has dealt with prejudice from law enforcement.

Summers said he would like to see law enforcement focus more on learning de-escalation and how to handle people with mental illness.

Some in the education world, meanwhile, are reserving their judgment of Whitmire's bill.

Victoria school board President Lou Svetlik said it was worth discussing, while board member Tami Keeling wanted to know the cost of implementing the bill and whether schools would get support from the state to do so.

Keeling hoped what Whitmire was suggesting was more of a community partnership or a public service announcement, like Red Ribbon Week, which warns students about the danger of using drugs.

She said the Legislature's last unfunded mandate, requiring cameras in classrooms with special needs students, was costly, and the district has not given teachers raises in several years.

The cost to the district to install the cameras in those classrooms was not available Friday, VISD Spokesman Shawna Currie said.

Tina Garner currently gives an about 20-minute lecture to teenagers about what to do when they are pulled over by police at her driver's education school in Victoria.

She said her students will walk away knowing to pull over in a well-lit area with less traffic, to put their vehicle in park, to roll down their window halfway and to keep their doors locked. She warns them some people pose as police officers. She also advises them not to dig around in their car for their license or registration because this could worry the officer who is approaching. She warns them not to exit the vehicle unless asked to do so.

"I'm very very passionate about what I do. I love those kids, and I'm trying to save their lives," Garner said.

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