#teensexting | #sexting | Marin might decline $440K grant for school officer

Amid widespread calls for policing reforms, Marin County supervisors might reject a $440,000 state grant to fund an additional school resource officer.

School resource officers, commonly referred to as SROs, are police officers or deputy sheriffs who receive special training to forge relationships with students. An SRO’s duties include law enforcement, mentoring, counseling and education.

When Marin County supervisors conducted public hearings on the 2020-21 budget at the end of June, they were flooded with comments from people demanding that they cut Marin County Sheriff’s Office funding and remove SROs from schools.

The supervisors reacted by reducing funding to the sheriff’s office by $1.7 million and putting acceptance of the state grant for a new SRO on hold.

In her closing remarks, Supervisor Kate Sears said, “I support turning down the grant that would add a school resource officer to address student vaping.”

Sears said she had previously thought of the school resource officer’s program as a benign way to develop positive relationships between students and law enforcement, but she sought to learn more.

“I learned I was wrong and that for Black and brown students in particular the impact of the program is neither benign nor positive,” she said.

Asked following the meeting what made her change her mind, Sears said her information came from a Marin County educator whom she declined to identify.

Critics of the SRO program portray it as part of a school-to-prison pipeline that has resulted in high numbers of African Americans and other minorities being incarcerated. Supporters of the program, however, SROs actually result in fewer students getting ensnared in the criminal justice system.

Amanda Williamson, a Marin County social worker, has gathered the signatures of more than 200 people who support her call for eliminating SROs.

In a letter to Marin County supervisors, Williamson wrote that Black and brown children are suspended and expelled from schools at disproportionately higher rates compared to white children.

“Most research attributes this to racial targeting by police officers and teachers in schools,” she wrote. “When police officers are placed on campuses, typical adolescent development behaviors and low-level-type misdemeanors — acting out in class, truancy, fighting, disobedience and other similar offenses — become criminalized, and entry into the juvenile justice system skyrockets — disproportionately impacting students of color.”

Josie Sanguinetti, a Marin County Sheriff’s deputy who serves as the sole SRO for the 11 school districts in the county’s unincorporated communities, said, “If she has any statistics that show that for Marin County specifically, I would like to see them because my encounters do not confirm those at all.”

If the state grant is accepted, it would fund a second SRO for the unincorporated areas for two years. Schools in Mill Valley, San Rafael, Novato, Corte Madera, Larkspur and San Anselmo also have SROs who are members of local police departments.

“I spend a very large amount of my time talking to kids, finding resources for them, having meetings with parents because we don’t want to criminalize kids,” Sanguinetti said. “That is the whole point of the program. The only time that we have to get involved from a criminal standpoint is when something has happened that is beyond the scope of school discipline.”

Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said, “The issue with suspensions and expulsions doesn’t make sense to me because that is for school administrators to handle; that is not an SRO’s decision. We train SROs to stay out of school discipline.”

Canady said recently released data from the Department of Justice show that juvenile arrests declined from a peak of 2.5 million a year in 1995 to 600,000 a year in 2018. He says that timing coincides with the growth of SROs across the country.

“My fear, ” Canady said, “is when you remove an SRO, now the school administration is going to call directly to the police department or sheriff’s office when they have a problem, which is going to lead to a response by a patrol officer who probably is not trained as an SRO and doesn’t have a relationship with the school. I’m very concerned with juvenile arrests surging back up.”

According to the Marin County Sheriff’s Office, the county’s SRO made no arrests resulting in bookings at Juvenile Hall in 2019-20. During that period, the SRO received six reports of assaults on school staff, and there were five investigations resulting in referrals to juvenile probation.

In her letter, Williamson wrote, “Where Marin County could be using social workers to resolve behavior and discipline issues, many schools have taken an approach of partnering with SROs. Let me be clear, school resource officers are not social workers, and we need to stop pretending that they can be.”

Mike Daly, the county’s chief probation officer, said, “Social workers and psychologists are needed on campuses, but the fact of the matter is there is no budget for them. Good SROs act as mentors, social workers and advocates.”

According to the Marin County Office of Education, the $440,000 state grant in question can be used for only one purpose: to increase SRO outreach, education and prevention services to address youth vaping and tobacco use.

Marin County Civil Grand Jury reports issued in 2009-10 and 2018-19 endorsed Marin’s SRO program and called for hiring more SROs.

Marin County Administrator Matthew Hymel told supervisors Tuesday he is trying to schedule a date in August for Mary Jane Burke, Marin County superintendent of schools, to discuss the issue during a board meeting.

Burke expressed her support for the program in an email she sent to the supervisors just before they were initially scheduled to vote on accepting the grant last month.

“From the trauma of the post-Sandy Hook days, to a sexting incident victimizing middle school students, to gang violence, to the increase in unhealthy habits like vaping and marijuana use by children,” Burke wrote, “school resource officers have been an essential support in all of these areas and in many more.”


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