Police / Police in schools

Is it legal for a police officer to be in my school?

Can police officers just walk into a school? What are Safer Schools Police Officers? Can a police officer put a student in detention?

Disclaimer: this article is for general information. It’s not intended to be used as legal advice. For information on how to get legal advice, please see our ‘I need a lawyer’ page.

There are two different types of police officers who might be on school property:

  • Ordinary police officers might be on school property in the course of their general duties. As well as the usual police powers, they may also have some additional powers. These are explained below.
  • Safer Schools Police Officers may also be on school premises. SSPOs have additional powers that ordinary police officers do not.

What are SSPOs?

Safer Schools Police Officers (‘SSPOs’) are police officers who are assigned to a school (or a number of schools) under a Safer Schools Partnership (SSP).  An SSP is an agreement between a school and the police to give that particular officer additional powers in relation to that particular school (or schools). Under an SSP, SSPOs have powers within the school which ordinary police officers would otherwise not have.

SSPs can be vary between schools. Some are vague about defining what powers SSPOs have. Other schools provide more specific detail on what SSPOs can and can’t do.  Many SSPs are available online as they are public documents. If not, the school can send you a copy if you ask for it.

When can a police officer enter the school?

There are several situations where an ordinary police officer can lawfully enter school premises:

1. Entering school property with the headteacher’s permission

If a police offer has a lawful reason to enter school premises (see sections 2, 3 and 4 below), they can do so without asking permission.

Police officers can also enter school premises by obtaining the permission of the headteacher.

The headteacher is allowed to refuse permission. If they refuse permission but the police officer still enters school property without another lawful reason, it is trespassing.

SSPOs may have ongoing permission to be present on school property under their SSP; however, this permission does not cover ordinary police officers.

2. Entering school property to arrest someone

A police officer can enter a school without permission to arrest someone.

However, police guidance says that officers should avoid arresting schoolchildren on school property. An arrest should only be made on school property if the seriousness and urgency of the situation require it. ‘Urgent’ usually means situations where further offences are likely to occur if the arrest isn’t made, or the person could be expected to disappear if they are not arrested promptly.

Even if the situation is considered urgent, police officers can still only lawfully enter the school’s property to make an arrest for certain crimes, for example:

  • on the basis of a warrant issued by the courts;
  • for offences that carry a prison sentence of over 6 months;
  • for escaping from local authority or youth detention accommodation;
  • for failing to turn up to a police station under bail conditions; and
  • for threatening someone with immediate violence through words, behaviour, writing or other visible sign.

The full list can be found in Section 17 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984.

Importantly, this power can’t be used to arrest people for minor offences. Nor can it be used to enter school premises to question people about an offence. The police officer must have reasonable grounds to believe the person they are looking for in relation to the offence is on the property.

3. Entering school property to prevent a breach of the peace

Although ‘breaching the peace’ is not a criminal offence, you can still be arrested for it. The police can also lawfully enter school premises without permission to prevent a breach of the peace.

The precise meaning of ‘breach of the peace’ is not defined in any legislation. Instead, the commonly used definition as defined in case law (principles established in previous court decisions) is:

“…whenever harm is actually done, or is likely to be done, to a person – or, in his presence, to his property – or a person is in fear of being so harmed through an assault, an affray, a riot….or other disturbance.”

Generally, when a breach of the peace has been committed, the incident will also be covered by an actual criminal offence, e.g. criminal damage or battery. However, the definition of someone being ‘in fear of’ a breach is more vague. The police have historically used this, for example, to kettle a protest when they decide it’s getting too loud, even when there’s no specific threat of violence.

However, this vague definition works both ways. If an officer uses a ‘breach of the peace’ as a reason to enter a school, it does not automatically mean they have the right to be there. If they are found to have been on the property unlawfully because it turned out that there was no harm actually done, or likely to be done, or there was not a person in fear of being harmed, then anything the police did on the property might be unlawful as well, e.g. if a pupil was then subsequently arrested, that arrest would be unlawful.  You should contact a solicitor that specialises in actions against the police, to explore the possible actions you could take against the police if you are concerned that an officer has acted unlawfully.

4. Entering school property to search people for weapons

Police officers have broad powers to enter school property without permission to search for weapons.

They can enter school premises and search the premises or any person for:

  • any article which has a blade or is sharply pointed which is carried without good reason or lawful authority (except a folding pocketknife shorter than 3 inches)
  • any article made or adapted for use for causing injury to the person, or intended by the person carrying it for such a use

The officer has to have reasonable grounds that someone on the property is carrying a weapon or using it to threaten someone. However, they do not have to have reasonable grounds about a specific person – they can then enter the property and search anyone there for that weapon. They can also use reasonable force to conduct this search.

Can a police officer hand out a detention?

The school disciplinary system gives teachers and staff power over students. For example, if a teacher asks you to stop running in the corridor and you disobey, they might be able to give you a detention.

In most cases, these disciplinary powers do not extend to police officers.

For example, if a police officer asks you to stop in the street without specifically detaining you for a search or arrest, you are within your rights to just keep walking. This shouldn’t change in the school premises. An ordinary police officer can’t give you a detention. However, SSPOs might be able to under the SSP agreement.

Do SSPOs have disciplinary powers?

SSPOs might be considered members of staff depending on the specific detail of the SSP agreement.

If they are considered members of staff, the SSP can give them the power to use school discipline. This might be limited to certain circumstances outlined in the agreement. The school’s behavioural policy should also state when disciplinary action can be used.

So, whether in the SSP or the school’s disciplinary policy, you should still be able to find the powers that SSPOs have written down somewhere. If you believe an officer’s action goes beyond what is set out in these documents, you may be able to challenge them. You should speak to a solicitor that specialises in actions against the police or education law.

It is important to note that an officer’s ability to use school discipline methods is unlikely to be more than a teacher’s power.

What is “reasonable” discipline?

Any use of school discipline, whether by a teacher or an SSPO, must be “reasonable”.

Section 91 of the Education and Inspectors Act 2006 says that any disciplinary action is only lawful if it is “reasonable in all the circumstances”. This means the person carrying out the discipline must consider all the relevant factors, including the child’s age, any disability, any special education needs or any religious requirements. They must be able to defend the action as a reasonable response to the pupil’s actions.

Teachers and SSPOs can be held accountable if they act unreasonably. If you think a disciplinary action imposed by a teacher or SSPO was unreasonable, you can challenge the school about it.

In practice, for minor issues it is usually better to send a letter or complaint to the school. In more serious situations involving unfair punishment, we recommend speaking to a lawyer with expertise in education law. Our ‘I need a lawyer’ page can help you find a lawyer with the appropriate expertise.

What are my rights on this?

Find out more about your rights and how the Human Rights Act protects them

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