Santa Rosa City Schools votes to pause school resource officer program
Santa Rosa City Schools trustees voted late Wednesday to pause the district’s relationship with the Santa Rosa Police Department while it evaluates the efficacy and fairness of the nearly 25-year-old program that places officers on the district’s high school and middle school campuses.
Board members voted 7-0 to suspend the partnership with the police department while creating a committee made up of teachers, students, parents, administrators, police officers and community members to examine the program. A presentation and decision on the fate of the program is expected Aug. 24.
“I want a pause. I want a reconfiguration. I want kids to be safe,” trustee Ed Sheffield said. “I want an ad hoc committee that has a lot of students’ voices on it.”
The move comes amid local, national and global civil rights protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis. The May 25 killing has sparked weeks of near-daily protests and vigils locally over police brutality and systemic racism.
The conversation has moved to schools, and specifically the School Resource Officer program, which for years has stationed an officer at each of the district’s five comprehensive high schools as well as their feeder middle schools. Critics contend that having uniformed and armed police officers on campus can trigger anxiety among students, especially students of color, who are historically disciplined at greater rates than their white peers.
“I am for completely eliminating this program,” said trustee Omar Medina, who launched a petition to end the program and has led the charge to remove officers from campus.
Medina said the district’s long history of zero tolerance and high rate of suspension and discipline, especially for students of color, has over time been exacerbated by the police presence on campus.
“I am wondering how many futures were lost as part of zero tolerance, which can only be escalated by the presence of SROs,” he said.
The district, Sonoma County’s largest with nearly 16,000 students, made a dramatic overhaul of its zero tolerance discipline protocol seven years ago after studies found that Santa Rosa City Schools suspended middle and high school students at a rate exceeded only by three other large districts in the state. The punishments fell disproportionately on Latino and Black students.
Nearly three times as many Latinos were suspended as whites, despite making up roughly equal portions of the population. Black students, who represented just 3% of secondary enrollment at the time, made up 7% of suspensions.
In light of the findings, the district moved to a largely lauded restorative justice model that focuses less on suspensions and expulsions while placing a higher emphasis on addressing the root causes of problems and making amends.
As part of the pause, Medina has requested demographic data on calls for police service and interactions between officers and students on campus. The data was not available Wednesday, according to district officials.
Supporters of the SRO program contend that officers are on campus to provide support for administrators who largely have the final word with on-campus discipline. With the prevalence of school shootings and gun violence across the country, police officers provide an invaluable service, they say. And when teachers and staff call for help with a student who is being violent or having a mental health issue, it helps when that police officer is familiar with both students and the campus as a whole, said Lynnette Casey, a health technician at Santa Rosa High School.
“I know personally I prefer to have an officer that we know, that students know, that we feel comfortable with, rather than officers we don’t know,” she said. “These officers have a really close relationship with our students and we really rely on that.”
In a passionate debate that lasted more than two hours, many called for the district to reallocate funds used for SROs to mental health professionals and conflict counselors. But the district has not borne any of the costs of the program for nearly 10 years; it is funded entirely by the city of Santa Rosa.
Raquel Guevara Bolanos, a community organizer, said it is not enough to issue a statement of support, as the school board did earlier this month, for the Black Lives Matter movement. She called on the school board to take its cue from students protesting against police and remove officers from local schools.
“I would really urge everybody here to listen to the youth right now. They are the ones who have to see the SROs every day,” Bolanos said. “I read the statement that was released by the school board on Black Lives Matter, the movement, and I’d like to say that statement is simply a statement without action. We are waiting. What is your action?”
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