by Leo Herbstman, assistant editor
The Board of the Santa Rosa City Schools decided Nov. 9 that they will not consider reinstating the School Resource Officer program without substantial changes within the Santa Rosa Police Department as a whole.
The SRO program was paused in June during the George Floyd protests so the board could examine it closely to see if there were any changes that needed to be made or if the program should continue at all. An ad hoc committee appointed by the board in June, consisting of parents, students, SROs, school board members, teachers, and administrators had been asked to consider three options: the program should continue as is, the program should continue only with modifications, or the program should be discontinued.
The ad hoc committee decided to recommend that the SRO program should continue with modifications, largely it seemed because of the effects of the program on students of color.
According to former Maria Carrillo High School SRO Stephen Bussell, who was on the ad hoc committee, much of the data cited was national data that did not clearly describe the situation in Santa Rosa. “It’s disheartening [the board] took a national issue and applied it to local schools,” he said.
There were five separate presentations at the Oct. 14 board meeting from the parents, staff, administration, students, and SROs of the ad hoc committee. The staff, administration and SROs all unanimously voted to continue the program with modifications, while six of nine of the parent members voted to continue the program with modifications, and one of two students voted to continue with modifications. None voted to continue the program as is. However, the board ultimately decided on Nov. 9 not to reinstate the program with modifications yet and instead are continuing their push for larger changes within the police department first.
Each subgroup on the committee—the parents, the students, etc.—gave modification suggestions, which included: having a clearly defined memorandum of understanding between the police department and school district, involving students, parents, and staff in SRO selection process, collecting tracking data with which to re-evaluate the program, establishing an oversight committee, educating students as to their rights, and making more of a connection between students and SROs.
Omar Lopez, a student member of the ad hoc committee, had mixed feelings. “On the one hand, I felt the SRO leadership wasn’t the best and also parents and students felt safer with the SRO on campus,” Lopez said. He added he ultimately decided to recommend that the program continue with all of the modifications suggested.
Board Vice President Sheffield, who was on the ad hoc committee, expressed some regret that the board did not see fit to take the committee’s suggestion, but said “our role as school board members was to take another perspective.” He added that the ad hoc committee was not fully representative of the district overall.
Beside the presentations, there was a survey administered to students in the school district about the SRO program. The survey received 2,192 responses, with 92 percent, or 2,018 students, responding that they were either satisfied with or neutral to the program, and only eight percent, or 174, saying they were dissatisfied with the program.
There was some question surrounding that eight percent figure. Sheffield said the majority of the responses were from people who are “very involved” and that students of color and other low-income students might have been left out. He also added that even though the eight percent of dissatisfied responses came from only 174 students, this proportion should be extrapolated out to the entire district, in which case it could be assumed to represent the feelings of closer to 1000 students. Others on the board thought the overall number of dissatisfied students might be closer to 800.
However, Bussell said there is no evidence that there would have been that many against the program had every student responded, and that it was not even about real problems with officers on campus, but more general personal problems with police, citing student responses such as “F*** the police.”
The dissatisfied responses did include many students who did not like police in general or who felt uncomfortable with them on campus, but a smaller number described direct interactions with SROs. An examination of a summary of responses released by the ad hoc committee showed that 57 students responded with references to negative experiences with SROs, with five Latinx of 603 total and five Black students of 112 total responding this way. Eight more Black students and 39 more Latinx students responded that they were more generally dissatisfied but did not cite direct interactions with SROs. The board cited all of these responses together as the major reason for why the program should be discontinued.
Sheffield said his decision came down not to anti-police sentiment, but a longing for change. “At the root of the problem is the continued shooting of unarmed black men, and just seeing cops can trigger emotion for students of color.” He said he wants SROs back eventually, but to reinstate the program he needs to see modifications such as developing a better memorandum of understanding, engaging parents and students with the SROs, maybe having officers in plain clothes with concealed weapons, or other measures to get students more comfortable with them.
The decision by the board does not mean the program will never be reinstated, but it makes it clear the board sees a need for changes. “I don’t think there is a reason to rush it, and I thought the board overall made the right decision,” Lopez said. “I think the board made an effort and listened to us. The recommendation process is new, and overall they listened to the facts we presented.”
However, Bussell said, “We as a police department are looking to identify change and have discussions, but the board isn’t ready.” Bussell added, “The lack of commitment from [the school board] is concerning.”
Bussell speculated there could be safety risks as well without SROs on campus. “I think no SRO could affect security.” He added, “The worst case scenario is it will cost lives. Most school shootings are without officers, and until the officers get there, the killing continues.”
With regard to the history of the SRO program, Bussell said he could not think of one incident that had come up where there had been a violation of a student’s rights or some other major problem between students and SROs. On the other hand, Sheffield said that students most likely would not always report such incidents.
“If we do things that negatively impact students of color, it is because teachers and admin call us over,” Bussell said, adding, “We’re not responsible for issues with communities of color in school.”
Lopez thinks that at the end of the day there is a possibility the program will not be continued. “I’m not certain the board members will vote to continue the program, but they will at least continue the conversation. I think they have the sincere interests of students in mind and they will do what is best.” He said the board should take their time making a final call.
Sheffield agreed, saying, “Part of my decision was that there are no students on campus and so we can continue to have the uncomfortable conversations.”