Mountain View's Public Safety Advisory Board agreed last week that school resource officers have a place on campus, serving an important role in local schools despite concerns that uniformed cops may do more harm than good.
The board, formed earlier this year, put forth recommendations to the Mountain View City Council to retain the school resource officer (SRO) program, but with numerous tweaks to address concerns expressed by the community. The recommendations call for greater transparency on what law enforcement activities can take place on campus, and suggest that disciplinary actions be handled discreetly and out of sight of other students.
Several school districts in the Bay Area, including San Jose Unified, have opted to boot cops off of campus over the last year. The decisions have largely been spurred by local groups calling for police reform following the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 and the widespread protests that followed.
Last year, the Los Altos City Council voted unanimously to end its SRO program at Los Altos High School.
But after months of surveys and interviews with parents, students and school staff, Mountain View's police advisory board wasn't convinced that it was time to ditch the SRO program. While some students said they distrust cops on campus or had a bad experience with an SRO, the majority of those surveyed were either neutral or supported officers at school. What's more, the program won glowing praise from school staff and district administrators who bristled at the idea of losing police support in schools.
Mountain View Whisman School District Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said SROs do so much more than enforce the law, and that they serve as mentors, coaches and advocates for students. He said "recent events" have led the public to paint officers with a broad brush, and that those calling for the removal of cops from schools are doing so "without any data" and without seeing their work firsthand.
"The death of George Floyd is a tragic stain on the fabric of American history, but it should have never been used as a referendum to remove police officers from our schools or reduce their presence in our community," Rudolph said.
At the Nov. 18 Public Safety Advisory Board meeting, board member Joan Brodovsky said many of the calls for getting police officers out of schools are coming from residents who believe, on a surface level, that armed officers are not a positive influence on students. But the board has struggled to find evidence to suggest this is true, she said, and she had to dig to find any parent who had anything negative to say about the SRO program.
"My feeling is that we've got something that's been working for 30 years that parents are really delighted with and teachers are scared to death we're going to take them out," Brodovsky said.
The Mountain View Police Department has three officers who are assigned as SROs at any given time, handling police calls from 16 schools across the city. They also teach classes and host presentations on everything from bullying and drug education to bike safety, and spend time on campus to build relationships with students.
In doing interviews, advisory board members found that the community is rife with misunderstanding over what, exactly, cops are doing at local schools. SROs do not provide security and are not there to proactively police schools looking for violations, and enforcing laws and making arrests only constitute a small part of the job. Advisory board members are recommending that the city draft a clear agreement with the Mountain View Los Altos High School District that spells out when cops should get involved in matters concerning students.
With little emphasis on enforcing criminal law, some parents argued the role SROs play in local schools could be better carried out by mental health staff. Parent Dawn Scott said officers don't make students safer and further criminalize Black and brown students, and that the positive anecdotes and stories about school officers should not be used on its face to support the program.
"There were instances described of having SRO as someone watching out for students was helpful in catching depression and diverting from gangs," Scott said. "Rather than use that as an impetus for increasing SROs on campus, I think of it this way -- imagine the benefits that could be reaped by having a mental health professional."
Mountain View Los Altos Superintendent Nellie Meyer, in a letter signed by the full board of trustees, gave a full-throated endorsement of SROs and praised their familiarity with "both the good and bad behaviors" of adolescent students on and off campus. She went on to criticize the advisory board for disseminating a survey -- passed out to students as part of its fact-finding process -- that she described as slanted against SROs and their involvement in local schools.
The letter goes on to add that online op-eds about police reform, including one that ran in the Voice, creates prejudice against good SRO programs like the one operated by the Mountain View Police Department.
Survey results show a minority of students had a negative perception, however. Of the 103 respondents, 30% felt positively about SROs, and 27% felt negative. A plurality, 43%, were "neutral." When parents were asked if SROs provided a valuable service and should continue to work at Mountain View schools, 82% of parents agreed.
A smaller number of middle school students were surveyed in the Mountain View Whisman School District. More than half of the 34 respondents said they felt positively about SROs.
While advisory board members were quick to support a strong memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the police department and local schools spelling out precisely what officers do at schools, there was some disagreement over how tightly to regulate the day-to-day actions of officers. One recommendation calls for SROs to have a presence on campus that is "more structured," and that officers should only show up for a specific program and need rather than meander around campus.
Advisory board member and Los Altos High student Jeannette Wang supported the recommendation, and said interactions with cops on campus can be scary for some students and shouldn't be incidental. She said it's good for SROs to build relationships with students who they work with, but maybe not necessary at random times in the school hallway.
Board member Kavita Aiyar said that, unless a crime is involved, student interaction with SROs should be "opt-in" and that police should not be wandering freely on campus without an explicit purpose.
"It's not necessarily fist-bumping around campus," Aiyar said. "Come to campus but schedule your times, notify the school that you're coming, don't just show up. We recommend not wandering around because you're making a percentage of the population of students uncomfortable."
Board member Cleave Frink opposed the recommendation, arguing that police officers will be hamstrung in their ability to interact with students in a positive way. While some students may be uncomfortable interacting with an officer, he said the city can't reasonably expect to shelter students from incidentally seeing a cop.
"If you live in the city, you are going to see a police officer, whether it be a school or a mall, and the idea where there is one place you can't see a police officer without being emotionally traumatized is a bit much," Frink said.
The recommendations will come before the City Council on Dec. 14 for approval. Results from the Public Safety Advisory Board's outreach can be viewed online.