Armed officers remain entrenched at school campuses across Southern California despite public outcry in the wake of a fatal shooting in Long Beach by a school safety officer and opposition unleashed by the 2020 killing of George Floyd.
School districts in Los Angeles, Baldwin Park and Claremont have acquiesced to demands from protesters to remove police from campuses, but activists remain unsatisfied. Fretful parents, meanwhile, worry about violence at unprotected schools and demand that officers stay.
The national “defund the police” movement that erupted following the murder of Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer has swept through the region like Santa Ana winds, monopolizing school board agendas and galvanizing proponents and critics from Los Angeles to Claremont to Pomona.
‘Recipe for disaster’ in Long Beach
Anti-police activists say they only have to look as far as the recent fatal shooting in Long Beach to find more ammunition for their arguments. It was there on the warm afternoon of Sept. 27 that Millikan High School safety officer Eddie F. Gonzalez opened fire on a moving vehicle in a parking lot off campus, killing 18-year-old passenger Mona Rodriguez.
“It’s an example of what we have said could happen with officers who are one step above a security guard and don’t have the training of a police officer,” said Najee Ali, an activist from San Pedro who is leading efforts to remove armed personnel from Long Beach schools. “It’s a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, Mona Rodriguez paid for it with her life. Until Long Beach Unified takes a second look at these flawed policies, we believe there will be another shooting.”
Gonzalez, who began working for the school district in January after he was terminated by two police agencies in Southern California, has been fired while police investigate the shooting.
Models of school policing
Long Beach Unified’s method of school policing — employing non-sworn officers who carry guns, batons and pepper spray but do not have arrest powers — appears to be an anomaly in Southern California.
Elsewhere, some large school districts have their own police departments consisting of sworn officers who carry weapons and have arrest powers. Others rely on contracts with police and sheriff’s departments to place full-fledged, armed officers — so-called school resource officers, or SROs — at their high schools.
Long Beach Unified, in fact, employed three SROs, staffed by Long Beach police, until Superintendent Jill Baker met with Black Lives Matter leaders in July 2020 to discuss school safety issues and the role of police officers on campuses, and decided to phase out the school resource officers.
“The decision to remove police officers from our high school campuses was one that had been in discussions by Long Beach Unified School District leadership well before the July (BLM) meeting,” district spokesman Chris Eftychiou said.
Long Beach Unified’s 10 school safety officers are allowed to use their firearms only in self-defense or defense of others to prevent death or great bodily injury, according to the school’s district’s use-of-force policy. They also are not allowed to fire warning shots or fire at a fleeing person and are not supposed to shoot at a moving vehicle at all, or through a window of a car, unless the circumstances warrant it as a “final means of defense.”
The district’s safety officers are required to complete the 664-hour Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) basic academy, which includes firearms instruction. They also receive supplemental in-house training on de-escalation tactics, working with adolescents, suicide prevention/intervention and related topics.
Defund campus police movement
The campaign by activists to change school policing in Long Beach comes on the heels of a string of significant, hard-fought victories elsewhere in Los Angeles County.
Following large protests, the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education voted in June 2020 to slash $25 million from its in-house Police Department, or about 35% of the agency’s budget, which resulted in the loss of 133 positions.
In place of police officers, Los Angeles Unified hired so-called “school climate advocates” to engage students and use de-escalation tactics in tense situations.
The Los Angeles School District Police Department employs 249 armed officers who are “strictly patrol-based” and now go on campuses only if they receive a service call, said Officer Jose Perez, a spokesman for the department.
Although officers aren’t precluded from employing use of force, including lethal force, they’re only allowed to use as much force as “appears objectively reasonable,” according to the department’s policy.
“It just depends on what the situation dictates. If a person has a weapon or anything that would cause lethal harm to anyone else, then there might be a reason to use lethal force,” Perez said, adding that officers are also instructed to use de-escalation tactics.
Los Angeles Unified school board President Kelly Gonez, who supported both the budget cuts and the removal of officers from campuses, said recently the board had heard “loud and clear” from students that having officers on-site does more harm than good and that she stands by her decision “to prioritize students’ voices.”
School board member Scott Schmerlson, who voted against the budget cuts, believes armed officers should be on campuses in case they need to respond to “life-and-death” emergencies.
Districts with police forces
Los Angeles is one of about two dozen school districts, among 1,000 public school districts in California, that have their own police departments. Others are located in Apple Valley, Compton, Fontana, Hesperia, Huntington Park, Santa Ana and San Bernardino.
The San Bernardino City Unified School District Police Department has 26 sworn officers who carry firearms but have never discharged them in the line of duty, said Chief Joseph G. Paulino, who has spent more than 25 years in school policing.
“It’s essential to the educational process that we have individuals available who are trained to deal with an active shooter or a serious crime that happens on campus,” he said. “We’re not there to arrest kids. We’re there to make sure we’re part of the educational process for the students and the community.”
The Santa Ana Unified School District Police Department serves about 44,000 students with 30 armed officers, said Fermin Leal, a spokesman for the district.
In addition to receiving the same training as municipal police officers, Santa Ana school police undergo 40 hours of course work in mandated reporting, emergency management, campus policing, student behavior, tactical awareness, leadership and ethics.
Floyd’s death due to the restraint of his body and compression of his neck by officers prompted Santa Ana Unified’s police command staff to reevaluate its use-of-force policy and prohibit the carotid restraint.
“Police training and duties continuously evolve to best meet the need of the Santa Ana Unified School District community.” Leal said.
Baldwin Park Unified School District had its own police department until March, when it disbanded the 36-year-old agency to save $1.3 million as part of sweeping budget cuts triggered by declining enrollment and revenue.
Some contracts for school resource officers also have been canceled this year.
In Claremont, the City Council voted in July to pull its dedicated police officer assigned to three Claremont Unified School District campuses as officials “reimagined” school safety.
And the Pomona Unified School District’s Board of Education voted in July to end the district’s contract with the Pomona Police Department for school resource officers. However, it is reconsidering that decision and discussing the possibility of inking a new agreement in the wake of a shooting near Pomona High School on Oct. 15.
The thought of bringing armed officers back on campuses angers activists like Jesus Sanchez, co-founder and executive director of Gente Organizada, a local social justice organization.
“It’s easy to call in the Pomona Police Department to help control things and keep up appearances, but that’s not going to address core issues,” he said. “They (students) need loving adults to come into their schools and earn their respect. And that’s work. And it’s not going to happen overnight.”
Apparently buoyed by successes in Los Angeles, Baldwin Park and Claremont and horrified by the Long Beach shooting, anti-police advocates have set their sights on new targets. Specifically, they want school districts in Lancaster and Palmdale to cancel their SRO contracts with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
“It is unacceptable to witness police beat down Black and Brown children when their ego is down, and not to mention a complete abuse of their power,” said Christian Green, campaign coordinator for the Cancel the Contract coalition. “Long Beach is but another example in the long and growing list of horrific incidents demonstrating why we must not only disarm school police but eliminate them entirely from our school system.”
Officials with the Lancaster Unified and Palmdale school districts did not respond to requests for comment regarding Cancel the Contract’s efforts.
However, others offer a different assessment of school resource officers on campuses.
Jennifer Hannah said her daughter, a junior at Foothill High School in Tustin who serves on the school’s racial diversity board, has never witnessed racial profiling by school resource officers.
“The deputies on campus have never been any concern for the students, that we can see,” Hannah said. “I’m sure there are some in areas who have issues with campus police. But we’re privileged not to have had issues. I don’t think defunding is the answer. I’m all for retraining and education.”
Mission of SROs
School resource officers perform three main roles — law enforcer, mentor/counselor, and educator, according to the National Police Foundation.
“These individuals are highly trained and usually go through basic, intermediate and advanced school resource officer classes,” said Wayne Sakamoto, executive director of the California School Resource Officers Association in Temecula.
Riverside Unified School District, the 16th largest in the state with 42,153 students, contracts with the Riverside Police Department for five school resource officers. Each officer is assigned to a “cluster” of high schools along with elementary and middle schools and are armed with a pistol and have access to shotguns and an array of nonlethal options, district spokeswoman Diana Meza said.
Additionally, officers can request emergency negotiating teams, behavioral health officers, supplemental patrol resources and even SWAT teams in response to a wide range of potential incidents.
The Alhambra Unified School District partners with the Alhambra Police Department for two armed school resource officers who are dispatched to campuses as needed and are specially trained to deal with juveniles.
Rather than rely on armed police for all security issues, Alhambra Unified employs unarmed campus supervisors whose job is to “maintain school site safety inside and outside the campus during the school day and student activities, as well as reinforce positive behavior,” district spokesperson Toby Gilbert said. The district also has three full-time security guards who provide extra supervision at school sites and the district office.
The city of Irvine funds six school resource officers within the Irvine Unified School District, which has about 36,000 students. Officers are trained and employed by the Irvine Police Department and are responsible for one high school, a minimum of one middle school and several elementary schools.
“The relationship between school resource officers and school staff is significant,” said Irvine Unified spokeswoman Annie Brown “They are seen as a resource and partner rather than a disciplinarian or traditional law enforcement officers who provide criminal consequences. They are a part of the fabric of the school community and participate in restorative justice to ensure reconciliation and correcting inappropriate or illegal behavior.”
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department serves a large area with 16 school resource officers at Saddleback Valley School District, Capistrano Unified School District, and portions of the Tustin, Placentia-Yorba Linda, and Orange school districts.
With the exception of one school resource officer at Tesoro High School in unincorporated south Orange County, the positions are funded by contract cities. Most officers serve more than one school.
The Sheriff’s Department also has a School Mobile Assessment Resource Team that investigates campus threats. In September, the SMART Team investigated 38 threats from schools across Orange County, including those made on social media and reports of weapons brought to campuses, Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Carrie Braun said.
“The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has dedicated and trained personnel who work closely with school administrators to identify safety concerns and be a resource for the school,” she added.. “They are an integral part of emergency planning for the schools, and when an emergency occurs, school resource officers have an invaluable expertise in layout of the campus.”
Ali, the San Pedro activist who wants to reform Long Beach Unified school policing policies, maintains that armed officers at schools are unnecessary, adding they are only a phone call away if an active shooter invades a campus.
“Our schools are over-policed and over-militarized,” he said. “There is no need for armed officers to have a presence on campuses. Every student has a cellphone.”
Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social welfare at UCLA and an expert on school safety, told EdSource in 2020 that a heavy police presence can adversely impact the school climate.
“Very heavily armed schools prime the kids in those schools to think of the place more like a prison,” he said in an interview with the publication. “Militarizing and turning schools into things that look like prisons is not healthy for development. It’s not healthy for identity.”
Indeed, a 2017 study by the American Civil Liberties Union titled Bullies in Blue found that when adolescent behaviors are criminalized, students in policed schools may find themselves at greater risk of entanglement with the criminal justice system merely by virtue of attending school. Campus policing, the study says, can exacerbate a school-to-prison pipeline that makes convicted criminals out of students who might otherwise be placed in detention or receive a suspension.
Ali agrees, contending illegal searches, harsh questioning and subsequent suspensions, which he believes are more frequent for students of color, plant a seed of wariness that eventually blooms into a full-blown distrust of police,
“We don’t want them to be introduced to law enforcement at such an early age,” he said, “because that creates hostility and distaste for police as they get older.”
Source: Orange County Register