*Update November 13* On November 12, the FUSD Board of Education voted 3-2 to adopt the recommendation of the SRO Task Force, which includes terminating the SRO program. The full recommendation can be viewed here.
On July 29, the FUSD Board of Education voted to reevaluate the School Resource Officer (SRO) program and established a task force with students, parents, and faculty, who will provide a recommendation to the Board regarding the program on November 12. Read on to see the Smoke Signal delve into both sides of this hotly-contested issue in our latest pro/con story.
Since its inception in 1998, Fremont’s SRO program has been intended to foster a sense of safety and security on campus. The program is vital in not only preventing students from engaging in harmful or criminal behavior but also in building positive relationships between students and law enforcement officers, and thus, must be a continued aspect of the FUSD community.
Recent anti-police movements sparked by a slew of racially-charged arrests and instances of police misconduct have elicited nationwide doubt in the police system. However, it’s important to recognize the benefits of SROs on campus — and the ramifications of their potential removal.
Beyond simply providing a helping hand to students, SROs are a much-needed liaison between the district and the Fremont Police Department (FPD). If a student engages in harmful or criminal behavior on campus, an SRO can help defuse the situation. Without an SRO present, the case may be escalated to the FPD, where the incident would be handled as a regular crime.
“If Fremont police come in, they come in with this mindset of ‘it’s a criminal activity and we have to deal with it,’ as opposed to [an SRO] who knows the students and the school site, and has a very different approach to intervening. [We want to make] sure that it doesn’t escalate to becoming this ‘all guns drawn, and we’re gonna take them down’ kind of attitude,” FUSD Board District 5 Trustee Michele Berke said.
In conjunction with Fremont Youth Services, FUSD SROs also refer students to the Diversion Program, which allows students who receive a Notice to Appear or formal arrest to talk with qualified mental health professionals and work out alternate settlements to incarceration, such as probation. If the SRO program, which is responsible for 80% of the Diversion Program’s referrals, is discontinued, many students will be sent to juvenile court and lose out on valuable intervention counseling and mental health guidance, which may cause recidivism in the future.
In addition, SROs are one of the few personnel on campus authorized to issue 5150s, which issue temporary psychiatric holds on individuals who may pose a threat to themselves or others. While members of Alameda County’s Mobile Evaluation Team can also place 5150s, their jurisdiction spans the entire county, while SROs on campus can respond to students’ mental health crises immediately.
Having SROs serve as a middleman between the district and the FPD is crucial, benefitting both students, who get to work with an officer who knows their school site, and administration, who receive assistance in dealing with student transgressions.
However, one of the strongest reasons for continuing the SRO program is one that, if ignored, would pose the most severe danger to FUSD schools — active shooter threats.
Because SROs serve on campus, they can react to active shooter threats quickly in a situation where just a few seconds can mean the difference between life and death. Comparatively, a regular officer’s median response time would be 5.5 to 6.5 minutes, according to an October 9 video statement from the FPD.
For example, on Oct. 15, 2014, Irvington High School’s SRO placed the school and other surrounding FUSD campuses on lockdown after a student reported seeing a suspicious male on campus, allegedly with a firearm, enabling the FPD to keep students and staff safe while investigating the incident.
Additional benefits of SROs on campus go beyond dangerous situations. The rigorous training programs and standards that they are held to equip them to serve FUSD better than regular beat cops, who would intervene in student transgressions in SROs’ stead. All FUSD SROs are required to attend the annual National Association of School Resource Officers conference and partake in district-wide Professional Development Days, where they are briefed on current issues facing school-based law enforcement, including emergency response training and FUSD’s Alternative to Suspension program.
SROs also often function as informal counselors and mentors on campus, engaging with students and staff in workshops. Many of these workshops are aimed at topics such as substance abuse and bullying, and are focused on providing students guidance that can help prevent them from later entering the juvenile court system. Further, SROs often have open-door policies where students can drop in to talk about issues they might be facing at school or at home.
When reevaluating the relationship between the district and the SRO program, it is important to focus on the “Resource” part of the name, rather than the “Officer.” At its core, the SRO program is designed to help students, not to hurt them, and the proposal to prematurely eliminate it would leave students without the proper support they need to have a safe high school experience.
While SROs help keep schools and students safe from physical threats, statistics from the July 29 Board meeting surrounding arrests and referrals indicate that SROs are unfairly targeting students of color. SROs should be removed from FUSD schools, and instead, the district should invest in better counseling services to foster mental and emotional wellness and growth. This is likely to result in positive reinforcements, lower rates of delinquencies, and thus lower rates of suspension.
The data from the Board meeting, as mentioned in Part 1 of our SRO series, indicates that a disproportionate number of cases at FUSD schools involved minority students. The same report showed that more than half of the 21 student arrests or referrals to law enforcement submitted by FUSD SROs were on behalf of students who identified as Hispanic, while 14% belonged to Black students. While Hispanic and Black students only make up 13.2% and 3.7% of the Fremont population respectively, they are represented overwhelmingly more in the number of student arrests, identifying a troubling pattern of potentially racially-charged arrests.
Students who are arrested for possession of drugs or behavioral issues are faced with suspension, expulsion, and even the escalation of the issue to the juvenile court system. Overcompensating for minor infractions under the name of a “zero-tolerance policy” begins a vicious cycle of harsh punishments. Furthermore, SROs reduce complex issues of erratic behavior and drug abuse to mere law enforcement because that is what police are trained to do — apprehend offenders and punish them. In this process, they may fail to consider the mental, social, and economic pressures that may have led the student to turn to violence and substance abuse in the first place.
Excessive punitive action can lead to a school-to-prison pipeline, the tendency for students who are punished in schools to face incarceration later in life. These students then may end up with a lifelong criminal status, only creating an animosity towards the police.
In addition, SROs operate under little to no federal guidelines and are limited to only a handful of training opportunities on implicit bias and school safety. Due to this lack of fundamental oversight, SROs are not equipped to understand complex juvenile and adolescent psychologies.
Mental health professionals and guidance counselors would be far more qualified to take on this task and foster a mutual sense of cooperation and collaboration on campus. Counselors are trained to deal with students socially, academically, and emotionally. A 2019 article from the American Civil Liberties Union explains, “The benefits of investing in mental health services are clear: Schools with such services see improved attendance rates, better academic achievement, and higher graduation rates as well as lower rates of suspension, expulsion, and other disciplinary incidents. Data shows that the presence of school-based mental health providers not only improves outcomes for students, but can also improve overall school safety.”
Although there are free and confidential mental health agencies available to MSJ students, such as Fremont Youth & Family Services, The Hume Center, and Bay Area Community Health, teens are often reluctant to seek help from these services or are simply not aware of their existence. It is much more convenient to reach out to on-campus resources, such as counselors and school psychologists, than off-campus services that are available.
By providing counseling for students, school psychologists actively lower the rate of suspensions by giving students who may be suffering with mental health a chance to go to restorative programs. Counselors can determine the root cause of delinquencies and help students cope with these difficulties and stress without criminalizing them. On the other hand, SROs would tackle the issue with the same approach they might use for adult convicts and repeat offenders, excessively punishing students for an issue that may have been better resolved through conflict mediation or counseling intervention.
During the 2019-20 school year, FUSD paid $770,000 to fund the SRO program. Based on an average yearly salary of $74,796 for first-year counselors at FUSD as reported in the 2019-20 FUDTA salary adjustment settlement, FUSD can hire at least ten more counselors using funds currently allocated for the SRO program. This would be a better use of taxpayer dollars, and at a time when schools continue to face budget cuts because of the COVID-19 pandemic, spending such a large amount of money on SROs is not the right course of action — neither morally nor financially.
FUSD should remove SROs from schools, and instead, invest the $770,000 budget to maintain an adequate ratio of counselors to students. We must fund efforts to hire qualified social workers and school psychologists on campus who are trained to deal with students’ issues in a more constructive way. Creating a safe environment for students of color starts with removing those who target them.
Cover Graphic by Opinion Editor Aria Lakhmani