The West Contra Costa Unified School District is paying local law enforcement agencies to station police, known as school resource officers, on high school and middle school campuses with funds the state has earmarked to improve academic outcomes of “high-needs” students, drawing praise from some and criticism from others in the school community and beyond.
Even as the plan was being considered, a 14-year-old student was shot in the leg near Kennedy High School in Richmond on May 14. The assailant didn’t enter the school, and the student is expected to recover. But officials from the district that includes Richmond and five other communities in the East Bay said the drive-by shooting and subsequent campus lockdown underscored the need for more school security.
School resource officers are police officers trained in dealing with issues specific to school campuses. At West Contra Costa, officers’ duties range from making arrests to providing counseling and mentoring to students.
This school year, California districts began receiving additional funds in the form of “supplemental” and “concentration” grants through the state’s Local Control Funding Formula, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last summer to improve the academic performance of high-needs students – low-income students, English learners and foster youth. West Contra Costa received about $12 million in these additional funds for the 2013-14 school year. Out of those targeted funds, the district paid four local police departments and the county sheriff’s department $1.3 million. That amount is about half the annual cost of bringing 18 officers onto 13 campuses. The rest is paid with money from the district’s general fund.
California’s new Local Control Funding Formula mandates every district develop a Local Control and Accountability Plan to outline spending and show how extra money from the state will improve services for high-needs students.
Because the state does not gather data on what is contained in the plans, it is not known how many of the state’s nearly 1,000 districts are using funds for similar purposes. Researchers at Education Trust-West, a nonprofit Oakland-based advocacy organization, have reviewed 40 draft accountability plans. They found that five other districts have proposed using supplemental and concentration grants to pay for school resource officers and probation officers – although the degree to which they do so varies enormously. They include Tulare City, Modesto City, Fresno Unified, Clovis Unified and Los Angeles Unified. Modesto, for example, proposes to add one probation officer at its continuation school, while LA Unified’s draft accountability plan calls for spending $13 million on its police force.
LA Unified is among a small number of school districts that have their own police departments. But an EdSource survey of California school districts found that two-thirds of California school districts utilize officers from local police departments typically as school resource officers. Seventy percent indicated that police officers are present on all or most of their high school campuses.
Marcus Walton, the public information officer for West Contra Costa schools, said police officers do more than provide campus security. “While school resource officers can offer a level of physical safety, the district sees them and other service providers as being able to build the relationships necessary to support our students both in and out of school,” he said.
The district plans to continue using the special funds to pay for police through the 2016-17 school year, according to the its draft Local Control Accountability Plan, which outlines how the district proposes spending extra money provided by the state’s new school funding formula over the next three years.
Superintendent Bruce Harter cited the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow to support using the funds to pay for school police. Maslow postulated a “hierarchy of needs,” a pyramid of requirements for humans to attain their full potential. Near the base of Maslow’s pyramid – the foundation on which confidence, creativity, morality and problem solving depend – is physical safety.
“If you are in a safe place, you are going to be on a better emotional level and more able to learn,” Harter said.
Some parent advocates questioned whether the district’s expenditure is a proper use of money intended to help high-needs students.
“Why do we want to pay for more police at our schools with money that is supposed to achieve academic equity,” said Tamisha Walker, a parent with children attending Richmond High School, and a founder of the Safe Return Project, a nonprofit that helps former inmates adjust to life outside prison.
In response to concerns about school safety, school resource officers are thought to bethe fastest growing segment of law enforcement. But a new state law now encourages districts to consider alternatives to placing police officers on campus because they may contribute to more students being suspended or expelled, or more likely to be cited or arrested, and ending up in the juvenile justice system.
The proposals to use funds targeted for high-needs students to pay for police also drew criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
“Supplemental and concentration funds should not be used to pay for increased police on campus,” said David Sapp, director of education advocacy for the ACLU of Southern California. “What we know to be the case as an empirical fact is that increased police on campus leads to an increase in citations and arrests of students and those citations and arrests disproportionately affect high-needs student groups.”
The ACLU of Southern California recently co-signed a letter from the Los Angeles Chapter of the Dignity in Schools Campaign to LA Unified Superintendent John Deasy. The letter asks that $13 million of supplemental and concentration grants the district is proposing to spend on its police department be put to use elsewhere in the district’s $4.5 billion budget.
New regulations in the state Education Code require school districts to show their proposed spending plans will increase or improve services for the high-needs students intended to be the beneficiaries of the additional grant funds.
When asked how the $1.3 million going to police would increase or improve services for these students, West Contra Costa’s Walton said safety and security is a districtwide concern.
“Considering the high percentage of [low-income, foster youth and English learners] at our schools, the funds will definitely be of benefit to them, as well as to students who do not fall into those categories,” Walton said in an email.
However, John Affeldt, a lawyer with Public Advocates, a public interest law firm that has been a major supporter of the state’s new funding law, said the school district still needs to show how the funds the district intends to spend on police will specifically expand services for low-income pupils, English learners and foster youth beyond what had been provided in the past. “Districtwide services still need to be increasing or improving,” he said. It (the new law) is not a blank check to do whatever you want districtwide.”
Former teacher – and current parent – Giorgio Cosentino said teachers also need to feel safe in order to teach. Cosentino, who now has a daughter in West Contra Costa schools, taught biology at Richmond High School from 1998 to 2001.
He said there is a need to be vigilant against any threats to the safety of teachers or their students. Cosentino recalled a fatal shooting in front of Richmond High School when he was a teacher there more than a dozen years ago. In what was by far the worst day of his teaching career, he recalls how the wounded boy made his way to the principal’s office. Paramedics were summoned, but it was too late. He remembers “listening to the principal telling us over the PA to say a prayer for this kid, and then later telling us he didn’t make it.”
Madeline Kronenberg, a member of West Contra Costa Unified’s five-person Board of Education who supports the decision to pay for police with supplemental and concentration grants, said providing police is part of delivering a quality education in communities with high crime rates. “The circumstances of poverty create the need for more security,” she said.
Kronenberg said district officials could have been more transparent about their decision to use funds in this way when they first released the draft LCAP in April. In the 17-page document the police officers were labeled as “Student Safety and Psych Support.” Kronenberg said the language was imprecise mainly because of jargon that creeps into education documents like these. The district, she said, wasn’t trying to obfuscate, and subsequent drafts have clarified what the money will pay for.
Stephanie Papas, a school health education consultant for the California Department of Education, said campus police officers are supposed to be a resource for students and staff. “On a school campus, police play less of a suppression role and are more of another trusted adult,” Papas said.
That characterization jibes with Alonna Gallon’s impression of the El Cerrito police who work at El Cerrito High School, where she is a freshman. She described an incident in which campus police heard a rumor she was going to be involved in a fight and intervened to prevent it. “The police make me feel safer. They knew about me fighting before I even knew I was fighting,” Gallon said.
Other students don’t accept the premise that cops on campus contribute to students feeling safe, and therefore in a better position to learn. Dennis Pimentel, 17, a junior at Richmond High School and a student member of the parent committee advising West Contra Costa schools on its draft LCAP, said his windowless high school already looks like a prison. He said more cops might only add to that oppressive atmosphere.
“If we have more than one police officer, it doesn’t make me feel safer,” Pimentel said. “It means there’s more tension.”
The district’s elected Board of Education will hold a public hearing on May 28 to get further input before adopting the plan formally in June.
Alex Gronke is manager for EdSource’s Following the School Funding Formula project, which tracks the implementation of the Local Control Funding Formula in selected school districts around the state.