Eye on Education

Amid national debate about police misconduct, Fresno school resource officers shift focus

Student Resource Officer Roland Diaz speaks with a student during lunch at Sunnyside High School in Fresno.
Student Resource Officer Roland Diaz speaks with a student during lunch at Sunnyside High School in Fresno. sflores@fresnobee.com

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.

In response to these incidents, some have called for school districts to limit what police can do in schools, while others say schools should get rid of officers entirely.

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.

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.

The police department recently got a three-year grant for $1.875 million to double its staff of school resource officers. Dyer said the officers will be hired incrementally starting at the end of this school year. All will be stationed at Fresno Unified schools and surrounding neighborhoods.

“It’s not enough to be safe and secure on campus,” he said. “We have a responsibility to ensure they are safe and secure to and from school.”

Some 43 percent of all public schools in the U.S., including 64 percent of high schools, had security guards, school resource officers or other sworn law enforcement officers regularly present during the 2013-14 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

It wasn’t always that way. The concept of officers in schools dates back to the 1950s in Flint, Michigan, when they were brought in to strengthen relationships between local police and youth.

After the idea spread, its focus shifted following the Columbine High School shooting of 1999 that left 15 people dead. Between 1999 and 2005, the U.S. Justice Department awarded $750 million in grants to place more than 6,500 officers in schools. That, accompanied with zero-tolerance school discipline policies and the War on Drugs, solidified their presence in the nation’s schools.

The Sandy Hook massacre of 2012 renewed interest in school resource officers, leading to more than $46 million in federal funding to police agencies, including the Kings County Sheriff’s Office and Parlier, Visalia and Woodlake police departments in the central San Joaquin Valley.

Now it seems the focus of school resource officers has come full circle. Officer Roland Diaz is leading the push within Fresno to keep students out of juvenile detention.

Diaz most often deals with fights at Sunnyside High School. But instead of citing students automatically, he sits down with them and explains how entering the judicial system could affect them after high school. Then he asks if they would prefer to work it out instead.

“Citation is not the answer,” he said. “It’s not going to fix the kids.”

Diaz estimates that 80 percent of the students he could cite are either released or sent to Youth Court. But his way of thinking has yet to fully catch on: By contrast, 44 percent of the students cited by all officers in September and October were diverted. And because Youth Court stops during the summer, students who commit crimes between May and August have no alternatives.

Pipeline to prison

Fresno is on par with national statistics. Data from the U.S. Department of Education show students of color are disciplined more often and more harshly than white students.

Research suggests racial disparities in discipline exist not because black students behave worse than others, but because of discrimination. Following the South Carolina incident in October, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the problem can’t be fixed until we talk about race.

“The ugly truth – the harsh reality – is that still today in 2015, some children are far more likely to face harsh discipline than others, simply because of their ZIP code or the color of their skin,” he said.

California is one of only 12 states requiring school resource officers to receive additional training before working with children. Joe Grubbs, president of the California School Resource Officer Association, said each district sets out officers’ duties.

In Fresno, officers go through the 40-hour basic school resource officer course administered by the state. They also take a two-day class on “strategies for youth” and “understanding the adolescent mind.” In June, California Endowment provided a 40-hour training course on restorative justice, which emphasizes reconciliation between victims and offenders. All officers were trained this year on how to avoid unconscious bias.

Districts and law enforcement agencies are not required to track school resource officer citations. But Clovis Unified, which hires its own sworn police officers, has been tracking them for years. Similarly to Fresno Unified, black students in Clovis Unified have been cited at a rate four times their population so far this school year.

Nationally, 16 percent of students enrolled in public schools are black and 51 percent are white. Black students represent 31 percent of those arrested, while white students account for 39 percent of arrests, according to data released last year by the U.S. Department of Education.

In-school arrests are the most direct way for students to enter the school-to-prison pipeline – the concept that school policies and practices can force students into the criminal justice system.

Nationwide, 59 percent of those locked up are black or Latino, despite being 30.6 percent of the U.S. population collectively.

Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson addressed the school-to-prison pipeline while talking about black and Latino students during his State of Education speech in October.

“If we don’t do something, they will become part of that prison system, which is a dead end on so many fronts I shudder to think about it,” he said.

Becoming a student resource

On a sunny day in November, Diaz stepped out of his office at Sunnyside High School for lunch – the best time of day to interact with students. A tiny camera was perched on the side of his sunglasses, which he has been wearing voluntarily for months.

Diaz used to stand in one spot and look around. Then he started seeing his job the way students see it. They thought his fixed post made it look like he was just waiting to catch them doing something bad.

Senior Kimmy Sarim and her friends walked up to Diaz in the school’s courtyard. Kimmy told him she had written a research paper the month before about police misconduct and excessive use of force.

“Why didn’t you come talk to me?” Diaz said. “I could have helped you.”

Kimmy said she worries she’ll be targeted someday by police. Her brother was stopped once while playing basketball with friends by an officer who thought they were in a gang.

But with Diaz, she said, “it’s different.”

Diaz said students often ask him about the role of police and police violence. That’s a good thing, he said. It means they trust him.

Andrea Castillo: 559-441-6279, @andreamcastillo

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