Fresno Unified students say “overwhelmingly” that they would feel unsafe if police officers are removed from campuses, which is under consideration by the district’s board.
The students’ comments came in response to questions raised in focus groups in January and February that were led by Student Voice Initiative groups, representing at-risk student populations, as well as school-based student focus groups.
The survey of students is part of an ongoing review by the district about whether to renew a contract with the Fresno Police Department to employ officers as school resource officers. High-profile killings of people of color by police last year, including the Memorial Day slaying of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, sparked calls to follow the lead of other school districts such as Minneapolis and terminate the school resource officer contract.
According to the “Student Voice on Policing” report to the School Board, 114 middle and high school students from diverse racial, ethnic, socio-economic and gender backgrounds were randomly selected for the focus groups. They were not identified in the report.
Although campuses have been closed for nearly a year because of the coronavirus pandemic, Fresno Unified trustees will decide whether police officers should be on campus with students after schools reopen.
In their focus groups, the students reported that they feel safer with a police officer on campus in case violence breaks out. They questioned whether a teacher would have the training to intervene if someone began shooting on campus or if a fight broke out.
Knowing that a police officer is on campus with them provides “an additional layer of security, especially when the surrounding school neighborhood is unsafe,” the report said.
And students said they worried that schools could become more of a target for violence such as school shootings or strangers on campus if police officers were removed.
Students Recommend Better Communications and Training
If the district decides to keep police on campus, the students say they’ve got some suggestions that include improving communications and conversations between officers and students, retraining officers in how to deal with students in crisis and also for more consistent responses, and employing officers who students can identify with.
Police officers who have positive attitudes tend to have more positive interactions and make students feel safer. According to the report, one focus group student reported a school resource officer was often “grouchy, moody, and mean.”
Some of the students reported witnessing some incidents involving police use of force on campus that frightened or upset them. School resource officers were sometimes inconsistent in how they treated students or responded to incidents, pointing to a need for additional training and more accountability, the students said.
The students acknowledged that some of their perceptions of police have been skewed by news media reports and not their own personal experiences. “In particular, students cited the media’s coverage of the George Floyd incident as instilling a sense of fear of the police and a belief that all police are racist,” the report said.
Cazares: Board Will Consider All Viewpoints
The campus officer was “considered a friend, someone they could rely on and grow with.” — Trustee Claudia Cazares on her children’s positive relationship with Edison’s High’s school resource officer
Input from the focus group students is one of many viewpoints that trustees will consider when deciding whether to continue the contract for school resource officers, Trustee Claudia Cazares said. The board also will consider employee surveys, a research project now underway at Fresno State, and comments from parents and others in the community, she said.
The survey for parents/guardians and staff is open through March 12, and the district administration plans to have a summary report from the student focus groups, parent and staff survey, and research project presented to the board by late April, district spokeswoman Vanessa Ramirez said.
Fresno Unified’s $1.8 million contract with Fresno PD to provide school resource officers is set to expire June 30 but includes a two-year renewal option, she said.
Cazares, who represents the Hoover High area, said she’s not surprised to hear that the students surveyed through the focus groups want police to remain on campus and reported positive feelings about school resource officers.
When two of her children attended Edison High School, both developed relationships with the campus school officer “who they considered a friend, someone they could rely on and grow with,” she said.
But Cazares said she knows not every student in Fresno Unified has the same positive relationship, and she said it’s important not to dismiss their perspectives and experiences.
“They haven’t got another 16 officers just sitting there drinking coffee. And so are we going to put ourselves in jeopardy and let the contract lapse on the SROs?” — Trustee Terry Slatic
Cazares and Bullard area Trustee Terry Slatic both said that the report on the student focus groups is similar to what they’ve heard from students and parents in the community.
Trustee Veva Islas said Wednesday she hadn’t read the report yet and could not comment on it immediately. Islas had advocated for the district not to pay for police officers on campuses, saying the money would be better spent meeting the district’s education needs, even before last summer when Floyd’s killing sparked protests calling for police departments to be defunded.
When 60 people submitted public comments to trustees at a board meeting last June in support of removing school resource officers, Trustee Carol Mills said she didn’t believe they represented the majority in Fresno Unified because she had received a “bunch” of texts and emails during the meeting in support of school resource officers. Mills did not respond Wednesday to a texted request for comment about the student focus group findings.
Slatic: School Safety is Paramount
If trustees allow the contract to lapse, it could be some time — at least 18 months — before officers could reappear on campus, Slatic said. When the district ended its contract for police officers on middle school campuses, they were reassigned to other duties and aren’t available now for school safety, he said.
Slatic said he has told Superintendent Bob Nelson, “Once we let that thing lapse, we ain’t getting them back. They haven’t got another 16 officers just sitting there drinking coffee. And so are we going to put ourselves in jeopardy and let the contract lapse on the SROs?”
He said he expects that after being absent from schools for more than a year, the return to classrooms will be a particularly tumultuous time for students, some of whom may act out against fellow students and staff.
If the School Board does renew the contract with the Fresno Police Department for school resource officers, Cazares said, she’d like to see training improvements in how officers interact with students and staff, highlighting the officers’ role as a resource for students “versus feeling like they’re antagonistic.”
Chief Agrees on Need for Training
“If we have a school resource officer that doesn’t love what they do, doesn’t love the kids around them, doesn’t love to mentor them, then they may be in the wrong assignment.” — Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama
Fresno Police Chief Paco Balderrama said his goal would be for the school resource officers to be considered part of the school staff, undergoing the same training as other school staffers and building relationships with students.
Balderrama said his role with the Oklahoma City Police Department included overseeing school resource officers, so he understands the challenges as well as the value of having officers on campus. He said he agrees with Cazares and others about the need for additional training and supports annual certification.
“One of the things that we plan on doing is sending our school resource officers to a national conference, that’s the National Association of School Resource Officers,” he said. “And it’s basically a national certification that brings police officers who are working as school resource officers up to speed on the latest laws and techniques and many other helpful training that makes them better school resource officers.”
School resource officers should be good at connecting and communicating with diverse cultures, willing to engage with students and school staff, and well-trained such as through the NASRO certification process.
And, Balderrama said, they have to “love kids. You know, if we have a school resource officer that doesn’t love what they do, doesn’t love the kids around them, doesn’t love to mentor them, then they may be in the wrong assignment.”