Santa Rosa City Schools votes to pause school resource officer program

Sonoma County’s largest school district has voted to pause its relationship with the Santa Rosa Police Department while it evaluates the efficacy and fairness of the nearly 25-year-old 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?”

Of the nearly 30 public comments, 16 people urged the board to either pause the program or end it immediately. Twelve people supported keeping it in place.

Kyle Boyd, the SRO at Piner High and Comstock Middle schools, called the move to remove officers from campuses “political opportunism.”

“The rhetoric that kids feel threatened or terrified when they see a police officer on campus is something I have never been told. It is possible that the students who feel threatened or terrified are the ones committing offenses that may get them in trouble either with the police or administrators,” he said.

“The tragic incident that happened in Minneapolis was 1,600 miles away. Was this an issue before Minneapolis happened? I think not,” he said.

But many took issue with Boyd’s stance Wednesday night.

“I don’t think there are students who are afraid of men and women in uniform, I know there are students who are afraid of men and women in uniform,” trustee Jenni Klose said.

“I’d say let’s look at how we can do this better and do this differently,” she said. “I’m for the pause, I’m for the committee.”

Will Lyon, president of the approximately 900-member Santa Rosa Teachers Association, said the union largely supports the program but also supports stepping back and taking a look at how it is implemented.

“I don’t want to ignore the systemic racism in our country, especially around police. I don’t want to ignore the real feelings I believe that people of color could have when they are around police officers, but we want to have that conversation,” he said. “We think there is a much better chance that we can take what we have and improve it. We are worried if we were to get rid of it and then we did the work to find out ‘Oh shoot, it is really valuable program,’ we won’t be able to get it back.”

The district is not alone is examining its relationship with law enforcement.

On Wednesday, the Oakland school board voted unanimously to eliminate the district’s police department, following similar moves in Minneapolis, Portland, Denver and Seattle.

It also comes on the heels of remarks from state schools chief Tony Thurmond that his office is reworking the way police officers work on campuses throughout the state.

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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