During an August town hall meeting with local faith leaders, Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer promised to start tracking school resource officer citations by race and ethnicity.
School resource officers, a fixture in thousands of U.S. schools, have become part of the national debate about police misconduct. In a recent headline-grabbing case, a South Carolina officer body-slammed a black high school student and dragged her across a classroom in October.
The Fresno Police Department is preparing to double its staff of school resource officers. But the department also is taking a new approach to school policing. In an Oct. 29 letter to personnel, Dyer announced he had modified their title from school resource officers to student resource officers.
“We have asked our SROs to refocus their efforts on becoming a resource to students through mentoring, coaching, counseling and building relationships,” he wrote. “This is all geared to strengthening vital trust between law enforcement and youth.”
Critics say Fresno is no stranger to the unconscious biases that fuel perceptions of racism in policing. And they say bias is especially dangerous in schools, where students of color disproportionately face harsh discipline for classroom misbehavior that can propel them into the criminal justice system.
“The larger issue of why minority youth are seen in these ways is rooted in the larger cultural stereotypes of associating gangs, violence, criminal activity with people of color,” said Matthew Jendian, chairman of the sociology department at Fresno State, who specializes in race and ethnicity issues.
The percentage of students cited by Fresno school resource officers in September and October who are black. Black students make up 10 percent of the population.
Dyer released the first report, detailing citations for September and October. Among the 205 students cited for a felony or misdemeanor, 33 percent were black. Black students make up 10 percent of the student population in schools Fresno police serve.
Latino students were cited at a rate equal to their population, 61.5 percent. Asian and white students were cited at significantly lower rates.
More than half of the citations were for disturbing the peace. Capt. Michael Reid said a recent example involved a student yelling during class to challenge another student to a fight after repeatedly being asked by the teacher, administrator and officer to stop.
Jendian said it’s difficult to form conclusions based on data that isn’t broken down to compare the race of students by crime or consequence and the crimes by consequence. The data does identify the race of students booked into Fresno County Juvenile Justice Center. Among the 12 students booked, most for assault, 11 were black or Latino and one was Asian. Reid said throwing a book during a fight could be considered a serious assault.
When students misbehave, the officer has several choices: arrest and book them into juvenile hall, issue a citation, or reprimand and release them to parents without a citation. The officer can also send them to Youth Court, a mock trial program that brings the victims and their offenders together for reconciliation.
Dyer said the racial disparities among cited students are reflective of a larger society issue, but that it helps to have officers on campus as mentors and to divert more students from detention. Of the September and October citations, 91 students were sent to Youth Court or reprimanded and released.
School resource officer evolution
Fresno police provide 15 officers, most of whom are people of color, to patrol 18 campuses, including every high school, some middle schools, a couple continuation schools and one elementary school in Fresno Unified, Central Unified and the Fresno County Office of Education. The officers cost about $2.18 million this fiscal year, with nearly $420,500 paid out of the city’s general fund and $1.76 million from the districts.
A 2010 report by the U.S. Justice Department says there is little proof that these officers make schools safer.
“Studies of SRO effectiveness that have measured actual safety outcomes have mixed results,” the report states. “Some show an improvement in safety and a reduction in crime; others show no change. Typically, studies that report positive results from SRO programs rely on participants’ perceptions of the effectiveness of the program rather than on objective evidence.”
Dyer, however, said everyone should understand the importance of having police in schools.
“We will never know the crimes that were not committed on a campus as a result of an officer being present,” he said.