Opinions

Weighing the Costs of Police Officers on Campus

The FJUHSD Board of Trustees voted in November to allocate $780,757 to Fullerton, Buena Park, and La Habra Police Departments to provide a School Resource Officer (SRO) at each high school for all school days and regularly scheduled afternoon and evening events. SROs are specially-trained law enforcement officers and the school district has little oversight concerning their training or actions beyond the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) contract. The lack of District oversight makes it difficult to report inappropriate conduct by an SRO towards a student. The trustees rarely comment or review this yearly-budgeted expense in open session other than to compliment SRO’s services provided districtwide.

The main reason there is a police car parked in front of public-school campuses every day is to provide students and parents with a greater sense of security. After the Columbine and later Sandy Hook shootings, the new belief emerged that if an armed officer is on campus, fewer shootings would occur and students would feel safer. FJUHSD’s 2020 student survey found that 57%-64% of the students feel safe on school campus.  There is no earlier comparable district data available as to how safe students felt without law enforcement on campus. The California Healthy Kids Survey shows that for the past 15 years, on average, about 50% of all California high school students feel safe on campus. There is no credible evidence to show that having the police officer on campus adds to students feeling safer.

In reality, school shootings have exponentially grown nationwide over the past 20 years, even though over 30% of all public schools now have an SRO or school police officer on campus (www.cde.ca.gov/ls/he/at/chks.asp).

Research shows that SROs have effective outcomes instructing teachers and staff about safety drills, updated drug paraphilia information, and gang mitigation actions. Nationwide, the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) claim that SROs purportedly reduce student illegal actions and other misbehavior while improving student and officer-positive interactions leading students to feel increasingly comfortable with law enforcement officers and better able to focus on learning.

Instead, having SROs on campuses has led to unintended consequences, showing a steep increase in suspensions especially for students of color and students with disabilities. Law enforcement redefines normal teenage nonconforming behavior as illegitimate or criminalized in the school culture. Students experience increased suspensions and less flexibility from administration concerning mental health issues, addiction, and trauma, which becomes a foundational part of the school-to-prison pipe- line (www.wested.org/resources/effects-of-school-based-law-enforcement-on-school-safety).

Last June, State Superintendent Tony Thurmond appointed a Task Force on Safe Schools to create State education standards concerning law enforcement on school campuses. The State is clear that SROs should not be involved in student discipline on campus (www.cde.ca.gov/nr/ne/yr20/yr20rel53.asp).

The FJUHSD SRO job description encompasses 17 areas, including to “work with administration to resolve campus incidents,” keep unauthorized persons off campus, investigate student conduct situations, and conduct personal and property searches under direction of law or administration. They also can assist in medical (including mental health) emergencies, absenteeism, safety drills, de-escalation activities, and education of staff on drug paraphernalia. The SRO expense means the district has less money for other professional staff and they utilize SROs for many jobs, some of them outside their expertise.

Before the Trustees approved the budget expense, they asked if the officers were specially chosen and if they received additional training to work with students. One pertinent request that should be made is for the Superintendent to define student discipline for both principals and the officers.

Research shows that SROs believe they are not involved in school discipline because they equate discipline with handing out suspensions and expulsions, but they are found to participate in nuanced disciplinary actions. Actions include personally correcting the teens and sharing the law enforcement implications of observed student behaviors directly with students. These actions reflect the officers’ belief that they are acting as responsible adults dispensing counseling and teaching advice while supporting the school community.

Statewide, some SROs overtly participate in discipline from the direction of school administrators by participating in interrogation of students or other actions at the insistence of the administration (Curran, F.C., Fisher, B., “Why and When Do School Resource Officers Engage in School Discipline,” American Journal of Education, October 2019).

When Trustee Fawley asked about additional SRO training, the question should have included who trains them and is there any District oversight or input in the training.

Currently, SRO training is conducted and reviewed by the COPS (Community School Policing Services) program focusing on police action and not from an educational perspective. Law enforcement perpetuates an inherently unambiguous perception of student behavior, as NASRO Executive Director Mo Canady is quoted as saying in 2018, “You can’t criminalize behavior. It is either criminal or not.”  (www.justicepolicy.org/news/12601). Having even the best-intentioned SROs involved in discipline brings a clear-cut legitimate/illegitimate dichotomy in reviewing teenage behavior. This simplistic view creates additional repercussions beyond suspension. Teenagers attend school to learn to make better decisions predicated on the reality that sometimes they make unwise choices.

The trending FJUHSD suspension rates over the past eight years shows a dip from 48 per 1000 students in 2012 down to 30/1000 in 2015 and then up to 52/1000 students for 2017-19 school years. That trend is higher than the OC district average (www.kidsdata.org/topic/495/suspensions/trend).

Self-identified Hispanic students compose over 50% of the student population of FJUHSD and they are suspended at a rate of 6.4% versus 4.3% of the white student population (www.caschooldashboard.org). This upward suspension trend reflects that more students are now being suspended for a perceived increase of nonconforming or illegal student behavior.

This indicates a cultural shift from identifying teenage behavior that was once cause for less punitive behavioral discipline into actions requiring more intense repercussions.

Having law enforcement participating in medical emergencies, including mental health incidents, changes actions by students with physical, mental, and cognitive issues, into law enforcement situations rather than student situations in need of social services and psychological support.

FJUHSD recently invested funds to train teachers and administrators in restorative practices and social and emotional trauma-based teaching methods that have data-backed proof that these programs result in less suspensions. The question is not whether SROs can build good relationships with students or make them feel safer, it is more a question of do you get the most benefits for the hefty SRO price tag. Over 50% of FJUHSD students feel safe at school with or without an SRO on campus, suspensions have gone up not down, and there is a greater student need for mental health professionals that the district cannot currently afford.

The Administration could renegotiate to lessen SRO daily presence on campus, clearly define student discipline to keep SROs out of student disciplinary interactions, and create a district oversight process that is easily communicated to students, parents, and teachers so that any nonnormative behavior exhibited by an officer can be easily reported. SROs could be welcomed on campuses to deal with physical emergencies and provide safety, drug, and de-escalation education while the District uses some of the yearly expenditure of over $750,000 to hire additional school psychologists or social workers on every school campus where they can form real long-term relationships with teenagers and their families. Hiring the proper professionals provides support for students to cope with their mental health, addiction, and food and housing insecurity challenges, rather than having law enforcement police these issues. Trustees could reevaluate this yearly expense and invest wisely to effectively address ongoing social and mental health problems that have been exposed and exacerbated during this stressful and traumatizing time.

Resources:

•Curran, F.C., Fisher, B., “Why and When Do School Resource Officers Engage in School Discipline,” American Journal of Education, October 2019, PDF.

•Stern, A., Petrosino, A., “What do We Know About the Effects of School-based Law Enforcement on School Safety?” West Ed Justice and Prevention Research Center, April 2019. www.wested.org/resources/effects-of-school-based-law-enforcement-on-school-safety/

•FJUHSD Board Agenda, November 10, 2020. https://agendaonline.net/public/Meeting.aspxAgencyID=1272&MeetingID=80433&AgencyTypeID=1&IsArchived=False

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