National City Police Capt. Alex Hernandez presented an overview of the School Resource Officer program which triggered a deeper discussion about the role of police officers on campus among city council members, National School District Board Member Alma Sarmiento and Sweetwater Union High School District Chief of Educational Equity and Support Services Vernon Moore at a Sept. 21 City Council meeting.
Through a program that dates back to 1991 and has its roots in the anti-drug D.A.R.E program, there are now two SROs shared between district schools that co-fund the program along with NCPD.
Although the discussion was generally positive, several council members questioned how SROs blend law enforcement efforts with role model development and outreach efforts.
Initially, Hernandez explained some possible benefits of having SROs on campus, such as serving as a visual deterrent to criminals, faster police response times and threat assessment, presentations on gangs, drugs and bullying, and active shooter training. He also cited programs that focus on communication such as the Handle With Care program, which utilizes the District Attorney’s office to provide an early warning system to schools about students who have experienced trauma.
“If we have a student who went through a traumatic event, we can coordinate with the DA’s office to let the district know the student is going through something; they can connect with the student and help them out,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez said SROs also participate in school supply giveaways in conjunction with the Rotary Club, the county-wide Shop With a Cop program that provides presents to children in need at Christmas, a turkey giveaway before the winter holiday season, the two-day long Every Fifteen Minute program to address the dangers of impaired driving and the STAR/PAL program in which law enforcement personnel volunteer as mentors for local youth.
“We hold a bike rodeo and giveaway… we take them out fishing, we used to go to Chargers’ games but nowa it’s Padres games, we use social media to connect with kids and families,” Hernandez said.
City Council member Mona Rios questioned how many hours SROs spend on campus building relationships.
“When I went down the list, it spoke a lot about law enforcement and I was under the impression it was going to be more about building relationships, trust. I want to know how many hours you’re spending at the schools, what you are actually doing on campus to build trust,” Rios said.
She also asked how many of the programs SROs participate in are organized through a secondary organization and possibly grant-funded through a different entity, such as the Rotary Club and how that programming fits together with city funding.
“It’s really about engaging with children and keeping campuses safe. Enforcement is minimal because the law is pretty clear: children under 14 cannot commit crimes. Most of our cases would go to the diversion program, through South Bay Community Services. They speak to a counselor there and have wraparound services,” Hernandez answered.
To build trust, he said, they often go directly to schools and talk with parents at outreach events like Coffee With a Cop, as well as conduct school presentations.
City Council member Marcus Bush asked for more information on how presentations on gangs, drugs and bullying are executed.
“Those are important items to address but my concern is with how it is presented. I view those issues as symptoms, not the disease. The root cause is trauma, sometimes abuse in the home, neglect, parents who are working two jobs and can’t be there, poverty, lack of access to health care,” Bush said, then asked if those factors are considered during training.
Officers, Hernandez said, are “very connected with all the schools” and often receive reports of students not showing up for class.
“I touched on STAR/PAL because right now we don’t have the D.A.R.E. program so this is providing the training for our SROs to go out to schools, talk about bullying and cyberbullying. Schools are mandated reporters and we can get counselors or CPS involved to get necessary resources to people,” Hernandez said.
Moore added to the answer with his viewpoint after serving as district administrator for nearly two decades.
“While I wouldn’t expect the SRO to work with the root causes you mentioned like gang violence, access to food, drugs and alcohol, the role of the officer would be more on the law enforcement and advisory side of possible consequences. Knowing our partner agencies like counseling resources, mental health therapy resources, we have a contract with the County to provide resources and typically our SROs are familiar with all those agencies and resources so they can make referrals,” Moore said.
Vice Mayor Jose Rodriguez said he senses there is an understanding that the historically punitive approach to “kids acting out fighting, to drag that into their young adulthood and adulthood” is changing.
“There is an understanding that the approach must change and I know there are some state laws that have advocated for that. National City is a diverse city, a poor city, and economically depressed city and as a result many of the kids who go to school have a wide range of social issues we can’t solve by having more police officers on campus. Those kids need to have more resources to address the underlying issues,” Rodriguez said.
Having access to diversion programs, Moore said, can also mean the difference between having a student face criminal charges after committing an illegal infraction or being referred to a program that sets them straight.
“Making a referral to a diversion program can mean someone entering that prison pipeline, or not. The really specialized training is a key ingredient… from a middle and high school perspective, that is critical.
The bottom line is we could not do without these relationships,” Moore said.