Defund school resource officers.
It’s part of the reptilian drumbeat.
It is the offshoot of the chant born in a criminal act literally on the streets of Milwaukee.
The heinous act under the authority of the law sparked outrage as it should. Unfortunately some of that outrage was hijacked by violence. Another unfortunate outcome was the ripple effect that caused many not to see the forest for the trees.
One of those ripples is the move to eliminate school district police forces and school resource officers provided by city and county law enforcement agencies.
Virtually everyone has likely seen smartphone footage of a SRO out of control yanking on a students’ hair, body slamming a teen, or slapping cuffs on a kindergartner. The same gives for footage of teachers doing the same thing except for pulling out the handcuffs.
Do we defund the teachers too? Or do we take steps to remove police officers and teachers that clearly step over the line and double down on efforts to do the right thing?
Just 25 years ago the Manteca Unified School District was struggling with serious trends.
Drug dealing around high school campuses on the way to and from school seemed to be growing by the week.
The Taco Bell across from Manteca High on Friday and Saturday nights was sometimes a gathering place for gangs from Modesto and Stockton. Manteca’s own home grown gangs were expanding.
A surge of latchkey teens from families moving into the western portions of the school district was creating a multitude of issues at East Union High prompting almost daily calls to Manteca Police.
Manteca Unified was getting ready to open Sierra High. The district was growing and so were problems that could pose threats to the safety of students.
No campus was anywhere near the horror stories out of big cities but it was clear Manteca wasn’t immune from school safety issues involving drugs, gangs, and violence.
The district looked at options. Creating a school police force like Stockton was considered and dismissed. Administrators noted they were trained to run schools and not oversee a police department.
Then they explored school resource officers or SROs.
The district was driven by the question, “how do we keep our students safe?” It also was the bottom line for the Manteca Police command staff. As options were explored, two other goals emerged that became almost as important as the first. Simply put, how can trust be built between the police and youth along with how does the community prevent gang, violence, and other issues from continuing to grow?
The board, at the time, was not unanimous in welcoming SROs onto campus. They weren’t anti-police. Their concern centered on having an officer assigned to high schools that were armed. Evelyn Moore — a trustee at the time who was a retired teacher — was vocal in her concerns.
Keep in mind this was before Columbine. It was an era where school shootings were almost always one-on-one incidents at distant big city high schools in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The memories of the January 17, 1989 Cleveland Elementary School shooting that happened in Stockton 16 miles away that killed five students and wounded 32 others were starting to fade.
The SRO program was established on a 5-2 board vote.
From the start the goal was to build trust. At the same time the ground rules were clear — SROs would never be involved in school discipline issues.
Manteca Police made it a point to select officers for SRO duty that were the right fit personality wise.
The SRO’s job was not a police officer as much as it was being a peace officer.
It is a distinction that can’t be emphasized enough.
Most people — including youth — when they interactive with officers it’s almost always in a negative setting.
In a way, police have always been social workers to a degree given they are the first responders for domestic violence and child abuse. It goes beyond that, however.
How Manteca Police approached the hiring of community resource officers to work with the homeless mirrors that of the SROs.
Both disciplines require first building trust and then relationships. It is the reason why it took Manteca more than a year to fill the second community resource officer position. The right personality is critical.
The presence of SROs on campus has helped improve safety and security. Students have been comfortable enough to approach SROs when their safety or the safety of others are in peril. Over the years such situations have ran the gamut from being able to prevent off-campus fights to being made aware of abuses teens were suffering.
But the real benefit is how the trust SRO officers build has helped Manteca Police reduce gang violence in the community.
Back in 2010 when the school district finances were on the ropes and Manteca Police had already lost 12 officers due to budget cuts caused by the Great Recession, Police Chief Dave Bricker went to bat when Manteca Unified was moving to eliminate the SROs vowing “one way or another, we’ll figure out how to keep them.”
The reason for Bricker doing so was three-fold. The presence of SROs on and around campus reduced gang violence, they are able to effectively gather intelligence on gangs, and they were able to counter gangs with a positive influence on youth.
You might think such assertions are gibberish but the fact gang-related issues in Manteca have dropped significantly with the presence of SROs can’t be dismissed. There was a point 20 years ago when there were gang-related shootings almost nightly in Manteca during the summer.
The city’s deployment of targeted enforcement with a specialized gang unit that also employed the use of social work style outreach to impacted neighborhoods made the initial headway and performed the heavy lifting.
But the long-term chipping away at gangs can be credited to a large degree to the SROs.
And let’s be clear. There is still a gang problem in Manteca as there is virtually everywhere. And there is still crime although the number of crimes per 1,000 residents has been steadily dropping for more than a decade. We are not going to eliminate gangs or crime anywhere close to 100 percent. What we can do is first prevent it from growing and then to start whittling away at it.
Policing done right benefits everyone.
The answer isn’t getting rid of police presence on high school campuses across the nation. It is to have peace officers onboard that are working to get at the root of distrust and to counter the influence of gangs as well as reduce crime not simply through punishment but through working toward solutions.
Do not misunderstand. We still need officers with guns who have to make the critical decisions needed to protect lives and property in heat-of-the-moment situations as well as conduct traditional police work to bring perpetrators to justice.
But we also need officers focused on long-term solutions that slowly but surely reduce crime and violence.
Manteca’s leaders in the school district, in the city, and in the community understand the importance of SROs.
The rush across the country in the aftermath of recent officer involved deaths to push for schools to shed SROs or their school police departments equate the concept of peace officers on campus to fostering a police state.
The question needs to be why are there officers at school in the first place? Once that has been answered people need to ask if they are doing what is expected and, if not, why not.
You get rid of bad protocols and bad apples. You don’t toss the baby out with the dirty bath water.