Balboa High School gun incident highlights gaps in policy guiding police on campus

Controversy over police handling of an incident in which a student fired a gun at Balboa High School in August is drawing attention to talks on a contract governing how police treat students accused of crimes.

A freshman at Balboa is facing felony charges for bringing a loaded gun to class that discharged, sending Balboa and three other nearby schools into lockdown on Aug. 30. The freshman was arrested off campus after turning himself in, but not before three other students were initially arrested at the school for possibly assisting him.

Supported by youth advocates, the students’ parents are now calling for an overhaul to the Memorandum of Understanding between the San Francisco Unified School District and the San Francisco Police Department, which is set to expire in January.

At a Board of Supervisors hearing this week, parents of a senior student who was among those arrested alleged that their son was unfairly criminalized and traumatized when school and police officials failed to follow procedures meant to protect students during police interactions.

They have, among other things, criticized police for escorting the students out of the school in handcuffs — in front of other students and the press.

“This unfortunate situation that happened at Balboa is an extreme example of why this MOU needs to be revisited and strengthened and needs significant amount of community input from families and groups,” said Gloria Romero, director of the Roadmap to Peace Initiative.

“It’s such an example of how a young person’s rights were violated,” she said. “His face was plastered everywhere.”

The San Francisco Examiner first reported in September on the the allegations by Roberto Pena, a SFUSD employee of two decades, which prompted Supervisor Hillary Ronen to call for Wednesday’s hearing.

RELATED COVERAGE: Father says school district failed to follow procedures, protect son in Balboa HS incident

Pena said that despite being physically present on campus during the lockdown and in communication with school administrators, they failed to inform him that his son was in police custody for nearly 45 minutes. Police then prevented him from seeing his son for several more hours.

“I was never allowed in the police station,” he said.
Pena also said that police initially escorted his son out of his classroom at gunpoint. That allegation could possibly be verified by footage captured by the officers’ body worn cameras, but that was not presented at the hearing due to privacy issues, according to Commander David Lazar, who oversees the departments’ school resource officer program and community engagement division.

The handling of the incident appears to violate the current agreement between the school district and the police department, as well as an SFPD general order dictating how police are to treat youth accused of criminal misconduct.

According to the MOU, officers must weigh out the reasonableness of making an arrest on campus, and then coordinate such arrests with school officials.

“We try to be very sensitive on school grounds, making sure students are not witnessing what’s happening,” said Lazar.

In both on campus and off-campus arrests of juveniles, police policies stipulate that a parent or guardian is notified.

“That notification has to happen right away,” said Lazar, adding that local law allows parents or an adult chosen by the juvenile to be present during interrogations on and off campus.

Kevin Truitt, SFUSD’s chief of Student, Family and Community Support, said that the MOU also requires school officials to make “an immediate parent or guardian notification on a police arrest of a student except if it’s a case of child abuse.”

Lazar said he believed officers in the incident followed procedures. He noted that officers may deviate from police code and the memorandum for exigent circumstances — including in situations in which an active shooter is reported on campus — and that the officers acted under the exigency rule when they initially entered into what they thought could have been such a situation at the school.

Truitt said the incident highlighted a clear need to “differentiate the protocols for active shooter response and other situations.”

“This MOU was never intended to apply to a gun going off on campus,” he said. “We need to in the new MOU be clear about that.”

He added that two community meetings have been scheduled in the upcoming months to discuss revisions to the MOU.

San Francisco Youth Commissioner Charley Obermeyer suggested that training on how officers are to interact with young people should be expanded, adding that of “2,000 San Francisco police officers, fewer than 30 have been trained properly.”

Deputy Public Defender Patricia Lee said that expanding Senate Bill 395, which in late 2017 set a standard of requiring police officers to connect youth under 15 years of age to a public defender prior to an interrogation, to include 16 and 17 year-olds locally, could have prevented the issues that arose at Balboa.

“I think the police would have automatically called our office and we would have consulted with that child,” she said.

Promising to follow up on the incident with Lazar and Pena, Ronen publicly apologized to the Pena family.

“I would have been going nuts if my daughter was being held and I didn’t know what was going on,” said Ronen. “It’s our job to protect our kids. I want to commend you for the work you did to protect your son.”

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