San Francisco school district leaders are reconsidering their relationship with police as they debate a contract guiding officer interactions with students.
The current five-year memorandum of understanding between the San Francisco Unified School District and the San Francisco Police Department expired last January. A new contract with revisions including stronger language intended to decriminalize youth was presented to the school board this week, but some board members said they would prefer to keep police officers out of schools altogether.
Where the prior contract was vague, new language added to the revised version clarifies under which circumstances administrators ought to request a police response, giving concrete examples, like during an active shooter situation, a gun found on campus or to respond to a sexual assault.
It also directs school leaders to call police dispatch to ensure that calls are properly recorded, and provides students who are interviewed by police with the right to call their parents on their personal cell phones, among other things. Once Superintendent Vincent Matthews and Police Chief Bill Scott sign off on the new contract, the school board would have to vote to activate it.
But at Tuesday’s hearing, advocates and several school board members said that having police respond to incidents involving youth may no longer be the best practice for the district.
The contract guides the police department’s School Resource Officer (SRO) program, in which an officer is assigned to specific schools to provide truancy interventions and offer safety resources to the schools. The SRO program lost funding in 2012, and SROs now respond to schools at the request of administrators.
An incident last year during which three students were arrested but only one was charged for a firearm discharging at Balboa High School sparked calls for an overhaul of police procedures toward youth and triggered a public hearing.
The police department and the school district were criticized after officers handcuffed the students and walked them across campus — in plain sight of other students and the media.
Advocates and the father of one of the students, Roberto Pena, blasted the police for violating the current MOU by failing to inform the students’ parents of the arrests in a timely manner and for violating the students’ rights to privacy. Pena said that the school’s principal also failed to properly notify him of his son’s arrest, violating the current MOU.
“In a lot of ways we feel the MOU process has run its course and is not helping to address a lot of the issues we see in the district around safety and things that promote restorative practices in schools,” said Kevin Boggess, political director for Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth.
Boggess said that the contract is superfluous because there is “no one to hold the school district or the police department accountable when [the contract] gets broken.” He added that there is no commitment from the police department to work with schools to address trauma in the aftermath of police interactions.
“During the community process to repair the harm done [at Balboa High School], the police department was not present to take part in that healing,” said Boggess. “We need to think of alternatives…to the SRO program to promote safety in schools.”
Several school board members echoed Boggess’ concerns.
“I’m having trouble with this whole MOU process,” said Commissioner Alison Collins, who pointed out that many of the district’s schools currently aren’t “safe schools in the first place” and “don’t have restorative practices fully implemented in schools [where] we see students potentially acting out or bringing weapons to school to protect themselves.”
“I would like for us as a district to be moving away from having police in schools at all,” Collins said.
According to Kevin Truitt, SFUSD’s Chief of Student, Family and Community Support, the count of students arrested, cited or detained has been on the decline in recent years, with 28 incidents reported in the 2018-19 school year compared to 79 in 2016-17.
In the 2010-11 school year, there were 195 arrests, said Truitt.
However, the district’s data showed that black and brown students continue to have the highest rates of police interactions. It also referenced two incidents this year in which elementary students were placed in police custody.
Cpt. Yulanda Williams, who heads the SRO program, defended the SRO program by saying that SROs “take lead from school staff and administrators” when it comes to responding to student incidents. She added that officers are trained in de-escalation techniques and trained to “handle young people dealing with mental health issues.”
“We are not there to criminalize young people, we are there to provide them with resources. Not only do we provide it to young persons in the school system but we help to ensure wrap around services are available to the complete family unit,” she said. “SROs are not in school for disciplinary reasons.”
But Commissioner Gabriela Lopez said that she is aware of “four to five” incidents in the first months of this year in which police responded to schools for students fighting.
In another incident that took place in January, police were called on a fifth grade student for “absconding,” meaning school leaders “were afraid of this kid leaving,” she said.
“So we are calling police on a 10-year old. These are things happening currently, this school year,” said Lopez, who later told the Examiner that she does not agree with “any MOU connecting and encouraging police in schools.
“I want us to listen to the public’s demands to focus on restorative practices…and raise the level of protections for students without involving people who aren’t trained to work with kids,” she said.