A movement to defund police departments is contributing to a debate over whether to end a formal relationship between the San Francisco Unified School District and the San Francisco Police Department. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

School district considers changing relationship with police

Board members debate dropping financial support for resource officers program

As policing faces intense scrutiny and mass protests nationwide, San Francisco school officials on Tuesday weighed whether to end their formal relationship with police and the financial support that comes with it.

The San Francisco Unified School District’s five-year memorandum of understanding with the San Francisco Police Department, which lapsed in January 2019, was met with resistance as officials have sought to renegotiate it over the past year. That resistance has only intensified against the backdrop of nationwide protests stemming from the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.

School board members on Tuesday expressed frustration with the reality of policing in schools as it stands, but some cautioned against tearing up the agreement without making sure the right system would replace it — and without listening to groups, particularly black communities and leaders, that have been on the forefront of the issue for years.

“We can’t move so quickly that we perpetuate white supremacy culture and ignore the people who are doing the work and who are so impacted by it,” said Commissioner Alison Collins. “[Youth] voices need to be centered and the voices of black parents need to be centered in the solutions that we come up with.”

Collins is working on a resolution to outline what SFUSD needs from The City as a whole with violence prevention and community resources from food to housing.

The expired MOU outlines procedures for when officers are on campus for issues such as drugs or violence, and for notifying parents and conducting interviews of students. It includes an agreement to work with the police department’s school resource officer program, and SFUSD pays about $45,000 of the program liaison’s salary. It spends another $7.5 million on security aides.

Debates over the MOU’s effectiveness came to a head in 2018, when three students were arrested and one was charged for the discharging of a firearm at Balboa High School, with police handcuffing students and walking them out in front of other students and press. Robert Pena, a father of one of the students, repeatedly criticized the police for violating the agreement and his son’s right to privacy while not properly notifying parents of the arrest.

Capt. Yulanda Williams, who heads the SRO program of 12 officers, said calls for reform are nothing new but that it would be a mistake to sever ties to a valuable program that presents an opportunity for positive interactions between youth and police.

“Reform doesn’t have to be a negative connotation,” said Williams. “I think we would be remiss in our response if we cut out any specific stakeholder. School resource officers serve as an asset to the school community.”

While arrests or citations of students have declined in recent years, black and brown students continue to have higher rates of police interactions, the Examiner previously reported.

Several people took over public comments in a committee meeting last week and commissioners noted they each got thousands of emails, in one of the biggest responses to an issue they’ve seen.

Some parents felt there shouldn’t be a rush to judgment and that there should be a liaison in place before eliminating police from schools.

“I know how challenging this has been,” said parent Rionda Batiste, mother to two black boys. “But rushing to end the relationship with school resource officers isn’t going to change the relationship with the San Francisco Police Department. There’s nothing in place right now.”

Several educators spoke in favor of removing police from the campus, saying it brings a traumatic element to the learning experience while reminding commissioners that racism will still continue in the school system without police. One recounted how her first-grader was kicked in the stomach in March and the school went into lockdown with officers present after the mother voiced concerns.

“It’s not enough to remove one racist institution like police from schools,” said teacher Megan Caluza. “We have to work to reform our own racist institution. When I look at our budget, I don’t see how we can continue the work.”

Instead, groups like Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth feel more money should be put into restorative practices, de-escalating conflicts, and building a financially, socially, and emotionally supportive environment that makes students feel connected enough to learn.

“We don’t want to scare young people into being scholars,” said Kevine Boggess, political director for Coleman Advocates. “This is a great opportunity and moment to divest from the police and reinvest in schools and community.”

Speakers at Tuesday’s meeting echoed demands to divert resources from the police to community-based responses to mental health, homelessness and restorative justice. Such demands have gone from rallying cries among criminal justice activists to formal proposals in cities like Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco after just a few weeks of sustained protests nationwide.

Supervisor Shamann Walton and Mayor London Breed vowed last Thursday to divert police resources “to support the African-American community” in the upcoming fiscal year, although it’s not clear if the amount will be close to the mandatory cuts agencies face in response to the looming $1.7 billion budget deficit anticipated from coronavirus. Walton later added that $25 million of the department’s more than $600 million budget would need to be diverted, while Police Chief Bill Scott on Monday said he would be “open” to the idea defunding his department, Mission Local reported.

A vote on a new MOU is not yet scheduled.

imojadad@sfexaminer.com

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