San Jose school district considers kicking cops off campus

Bay Area

SAN JOSE, Calif. (BCN) – After months of delaying a decision, the San Jose Unified School District will consider later this month whether to keep police on school campuses.

Students protested against officers at district middle schools and high schools at a board meeting this month. They said being under constant surveillance is intimidating and makes them feel uneasy and anxious rather than protected.

“When I go to school, they’re on the campus staring us down,” said Annavae Sifuentes, a recent graduate of Foothill High School. “Students shouldn’t feel like the school they attend is for bad kids or made to feel uncomfortable.”

After mounting pressure from advocates, the school board agreed to put the Derrick Sanderlin resolution on the June 24 agenda. Sanderlin, who trained San Jose police in rooting out bias and building ties with the community, was shot in the groin with a rubber bullet during last year’s George Floyd protests. He stood between police and protestors asking them to stop shooting rubber bullets into the crowd when he was hit.

The resolution calls for the removal of school resource officers (SROs) from district campuses. It also asks for more counselors, ethnic studies and restorative justice practices.

Connor Magliolo, who recently graduated from Broadway High School, said referring students to SROs gets them labeled as criminals.

“When kids get into fights, it’s off to the police instead of counseling,” he said.

He told the board that there were always police on campus, but not counselors when he needed them.

“I couldn’t go to school because of my horrible anxiety,” he said. “But instead of helping me deal with that, I was referred to police. I had to go to court. Imagine how traumatizing it is, going to class when you don’t want to, and then you’re met by a police officer taking you out of that class in front of all your peers.”

The San Jose Unified Equity Coalition has pushed the board for 10 months to put the resolution to a vote.

“I hear you,” Board Vice President Carla Collins told the coalition at the meeting. “I have continued to have conversations with parents who do not want to see police on campuses. This is a very difficult and complex situation.”

Tomara Hall, a special education teacher and coalition member, said the fight is an uphill battle. Month after month, she joined educators, parents and students in rallies outside the school district’s headquarters on Lenzen Avenue and spoke at board meetings. 

But others say having police on campus ensures safety.

At the previous board meeting, resident Carl Stewardt spoke of the 17 victims of the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

“The staff members and students assumed they were in a safe learning environment, but in 14 minutes their lives were taken by an armed assailant,” Stewardt said.

“Armed assailants are unfortunately a reality,” he said. “Please reject the Sanderlin proposal.”

Parent Jill Cleveland said safety from outside assailants isn’t something counselors, nurses or faculty can handle, especially when weapons are involved.

But a 2018 study found school resource officers successfully intervened in only two out of 200 incidents of gun violence on school campuses.

District spokesperson Jennifer Maddox said SROs ensure students and faculty are safe from outside threats, and aren’t involved in discipline, suspensions or expulsions. She said when there’s police activity in the area, SROs are the district’s direct line to what’s happening. 

“They’re not there policing students, walking around all day waiting for students to make a mistake,” she said. “It’s about making sure when criminal activity happens on or around a campus, we have someone there that is ready to respond immediately instead of waiting for someone to respond to a 9-1-1 call.”

Maddox said when a September survey asked middle and high school students, parents, administrators, teachers and other workers if the district should continue to use SROs, overall 78 percent said yes and 78 percent of students said yes.

While the San Jose Unified School District gets ready to consider barring cops from its campuses, other districts have already done so.

Last year, the East Side Union High School District removed its school resource officers. Outgoing superintendent Chris Funk said students asked the district to reconsider having them because it made students of color who live in communities with a lot of arrests feel uncomfortable.

“When your community interacts with police in a negative way off the school campus, that changes your perspective of how you interact with them on campus,” he said.

Ruby Carter, who attends Notre Dame High School, said many schools have updated policies with a goal of creating an atmosphere of belonging and a sense of community on campus.

“Being a Black student in San Jose, it baffles me to see the remaining prevalence of policing in schools,” she said, “and the extent advocates have had to push to get SROs off campus.”

This story was originally published by San Jose Spotlight.

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