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Commission debates future of on-campus police officer

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

Claremont’s school resource officer program may end if an impassioned group of current and former Claremont High School students’ wishes are granted by the Claremont Police Commission and ultimately the city council.

CHS senior Kalilah Hamid, speaking for the Claremont Student Equity Coalition, gave a presentation during the February police commission meeting asking that the financial resources budgeted to pay the uniformed and armed on-campus officer be redirected to school mental health counselors or possibly retraining the current school proctors to be “student safety coaches” who could intervene in case of a student showing signs of crisis.

“The $75,000 that is currently being allocated to the salary of the school resource officer could be put to much better use if it went toward various other positions that would improve the mental health of our students,” Ms. Hamid said.

Ms. Hamid’s comments were preceded by a detailed presentation from the school resource officer ad hoc committee, which was created by the police commission in September in response to public and commissioner questions regarding Claremont’s school resource officer (SRO) program. The committee, which includes commissioners Becky Margiotta, Rafik Mohamed and Rolondo Talbott, has a mission to “combine data analysis and community feedback into a list of recommendations.” The police commission is set to decide in the coming months whether to recommend the city retain or abandon the SRO.

During the September meeting several Claremont High School students, in addition to local activists, advocated for

the end to the SRO program because they felt the presence of an armed officer on campus created a hostile learning environment, particularly for students of color. Others, including parents, educators and at least one counselor at CHS, praised Claremont’s school resource officer, Jennifer Ganino, for her professionalism and ability to deescalate potentially dangerous situations.

The committee’s job was to examine Claremont’s SRO program and investigate how it affects the community at large.

“We tried to approach this as objectively as possible,” Mr. Mohamed said. “We stated this before but want to make it abundantly clear. This is not about our current SRO, officer Ganino. In fact, most of the feedback we have heard from community members has been overwhelmingly positive with respect to officer Ganino.

History of school resource officers

The SRO is a sworn police officer who is stationed at a Claremont Unified School District facility and who typically patrols campuses, investigates delinquency, assists with discipline, educates students and staff about safety as well as mentoring students. The program began in the early 2000s with a School Community Policing Partnership grant. After the grant expired the city and school district voted to jointly fund the program.

The first SRO program was established in Flint Michigan in the 1950s in response to population growth, increased juvenile delinquency and growing racial tensions that were fueled by a mass migration of Black people from southern states to other parts of the country. Flint’s program was criticized as racially motivated including being “anathema to Black people as well as creating abrasiveness between school administration and Black students.”

School Resource Officer programs expanded significantly during the 1990s in part as a deterrence to school shootings. Federal incentives, particularly after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, led to a “dramatic increase in SROs” according to the committee. However, the committee found that “none of the available research seems to address whether SRO programs deter school shootings,” and available data “draws conflicting conclusions about whether SRO programs reduce school violence.”

They expansion of SROs also coincided with an era of increased incarceration in America and a fear of Black and Hispanic “super predators” in schools, whom some feared would place the nation’s campuses under siege.

There are latent effects of SROs, including subjectivity in enforcement which tends to break on racial and ethnic lines including a “net widening” effect that redefines disciplinary situations into criminal justice problems. Students of color are disproportionally disciplined for subjective offenses including being disrespectful, while white students are disciplined for objective infringements such as smoking, according to the committee.

California is somewhat unique in that the state requires a specialized course of instruction for training of school peace officers to meet unique safety needs, and any school police officer must complete the course within the first two years of employment.

CUSD and CPD’s overall mission is to promote and enhance the best interests, welfare and safety of students, staff and community A specific means to accomplish this objective is through proactive strategies of prevention education positive interaction and relationship building that will deter students from inappropriate or illegal behavior, Police Chief Shelly Vander Veen said During October 1 report to the police commission.

Local arrest and citation data

Chief Vander Veen provided recent arrest and citation data linked to the SRO including 211 tickets issued between 2016 and 2019, and 20 arrests in 2018 and 2019. For the most part, enforcement occurred at CHS, San Antonio and El Roble.

Asian students represent 12.4 percent of the population and received 4.3 percent of the citations, while Black students comprise 4.4 percent of the population and were issued 10.9 percent of the citations. Less dramatic disparity was evident among Hispanic students, who make up 42 percent of the population and received 45.5 percent of the citations, and white students who represent 34.4 percent of the student body and received 33.2 percent of the citations.

The two years of arrest data show a similar pattern with Asians comprising just five percent of arrests and Blacks 15 percent. Data for Hispanics and white students flip, with just 35 percent of Hispanics arrested, a full seven percentage points less than their population on campus. Forty percent of students arrested were white, 6.5 percent higher than their population.

Ms. Margiotta noted the disproportionally high rate of citations and arrests of Black students in particular. “It’s something I want my fellow commissioners to be aware of and get curious about, and I think it is problematic,” she said.

In 2018 the SRO made nine arrests, five resulting from a parent of the minor victim requesting that outcome. There was also one arrest for domestic violence reported by the minor victim. “Per the penal code, it’s a crime for an officer not to make an arrest in these situations,” Chief VanderVeen said.

The school resource officer had some level of discretion in only three of the 2018 arrests. These included two white female El Roble students—one arrested for arson the other for threatening to commit a school shooting, while a Hispanic male at CHS was arrested for possession of hallucinogenic drugs.

All three arrests of Black students in 2018 were at the request of the victims’ parents. Alleged crimes include two at El Roble, a male accused of sexual battery and a female for tattooing a minor. A female CHS student was arrested for battery.

In 2019, six white students, three Hispanics, one Asian and one identified as other were arrested. Of these 11 arrests, four were at the request of a parent of the victim of the crime. Alleged crimes include assault with a deadly weapon, battery, possession of a weapon, vandalism, possession of alcohol and drug possession. There were no Black students arrested that year by the SRO.

CHS students respond

“This commission has received thorough presentations from those who seek to keep the SRO program as it is. We have not yet received a thorough presentation from those who are experiencing harm, no matter how unintended, from the SRO program. Tonight our intention is to be sure we fully understand their concerns and recommendations,” the ad hoc committee wrote.

At the suggestion of the student coalition, the district should hire more therapists, counselors, social workers and nurses. “These professionals are better equipped to learn about potential acts of violence, identify students with emotional or behavioral issues and respond in appropriate ways,” according to the student presentation.

“The best way to keep our campuses safe is to work in preventive actions whereas campus police have always and will always work in terms of reactionary measures,” Ms. Hamid said. “We cannot continue to have a police officer on our school campus in replacement of adequate mental health resources.”

This includes unarmed student safety coaches who implement precautionary measures including informally screening students in the morning by asking how they are doing. If current CHS proctors could receive specialized mental health training, they could function in this role and the school would not have to hire any new employees. Plus, many students already have strong connections with the proctors and see them as mentors.

Beyond increased focus on mental health protections, the students emphasized racial and ethnic discrimination related to student resource officers.

They cited U.S Department of Education civil rights data from 2013 and 2014 that concluded Black students were three times and Native Americans were twice as likely to be arrested at school as whites. And 70 percent of students reported to law enforcement are Black or Hispanic. 

CHS student Jayla Sheffield recounted an experience when her mother was pulled over for a crosswalk violation while driving Jayla to school. She described officer Ganino’s manner as rude and short, and said it was not a pleasant experience. Shortly thereafter, she was dropped off at school where she had to encounter the officer again.

“I am not speaking on behalf of all Black people who go to Claremont High School or all Black people in Claremont, but from the experiences that I have had, a lot of Black students, and Black people, have very negative encounters with the police and I think that one less place where they should be having those encounters is in a place where they are learning, in a place that should be safe,” she said.

Public comment during the February meeting was largely in favor of eliminating the SRO position, but reaction from the commission was mixed, with some members expressing the opinion that SRO programs across the nation may be problematic but the one in Claremont may be the exception.

“It sounds like the problem with the SRO position is a national problem, but it doesn’t sound like it’s a Claremont problem, from what I have seen on the arrest record and all the things I have heard about officer Ganino,” commissioner Frank DeLeo said.

The SRO ad hoc committee will evaluate 1,285 responses to a public survey and will provide an updated report during the March meeting, with its final recommendations anticipated during an April meeting. The entire commission will then vote to either keep, modify or scrap the program and that recommendation will be forwarded to the Claremont City Council at a future date.

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