By Amy Sylvestri • San Leandro Times
The City Council unanimously voted this week to accept half of the federal grant money available to hire two police officers to patrol city schools, despite a number of public speakers who do not want any police on campuses.
The grant money to hire new school police officers has been the subject of debate for months. The schools said they would not use student money to help pay for police, and the city eventually agreed to reduce the number of officers and to pay for the salaries not covered by the grant.
At Monday’s night’s meeting, the city approved hiring two campus cops for four years, paid for by $1.3 million in city funds and $250,000 grant money.
This is in addition to the school district’s 14 security guards that cost the district $540,000 annually.
School Superintendent Mike McLaughlin and school board president Diana Prola both wrote to the council encouraging them to accept the grant for two officers. Their issues were with making the schools pay, not with having officers in the schools.
But protesters from Students and Families for Education (SAFE) urged the City Council to remove police officers from schools altogether. They said the cops don’t effectively create a safe environment and also may make criminal cases out of what would be routine discipline problems.
SAFE especially took an exception to a part of the grant application that said school police officers would focus on monitoring the online behavior of students.
The grant application read in part:
“With funding, the SLPD also plans to increase its use of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat) to monitor youth activities as well as communicate with students and our community. We plan to utilize posts on these sites to alert the public about available activities and warn them of threats.”
More than a dozen public speakers, including several young students, spoke against having officers in schools at all.
“I originally wasn’t going to ask you to decline the grant, but given the content of the grant application, I will,” said Tim Holmes. He called law enforcement tracking of the online activity of kids as young as elementary school “truly unacceptable” and “an offense to our way of life.” Holmes that the police have “Orwellian goals” when it comes to data collection on the public.
Mitch Huitema said that having officers in schools could escalate situations if police treat everyone like suspects.
“If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” said Huitema. She said that kids say things online and act out in ways they wouldn’t do as an adult and they deserve a safe space to make mistakes without getting involved in the legal system.
Police Chief Sandra Spagnoli said that monitoring students online behavior is nothing new but that no “database” of student social media accounts is being created and stored, they just use the information that is available to anyone on the internet.
The police monitor what students post in public forums and act if necessary – Spagnoli added that Facebook posts have been used to preemptively to stop fights on campus and locate runaways. She said that social media is also a valuable tool for the department to post their own information for kids to see.
Cassidy said that the decision before the council was for approving funding the two officers only (the deadline to accept the grant is Dec. 24). But he added that a lot of the public still has questions that need to be answered.
Cassidy said that there are valid concerns that a child could get swept up in the criminal justice system for a minor infraction if a campus officer steps in rather than a school administrator. He asked Spagnoli to give an example of what would happen if a high school student were to be caught with a small amount of marijuana.
Spagnoli said that a warning, counseling, and the involvement of parents along with whatever discipline the school would hand out would be appropriate and that the police department is not in the business of trying to get students in trouble with the legal system.
“The justice system in itself does not have time for low-level criminals,” said Spagnoli. “The law says we must handle them (young offenders) in the lowest level possible.
Spagnoli added that the officers who will patrol the schools will be ones with genuine interest in helping kids.
“No one entity can take care of kids in schools by themselves,” said Spagnoli. “They are just one spoke in a wheel that’s moving kids to be successful.”
But the parents and students in SAFE did not agree. One woman called the officers “the expansion of a police state in our schools.” Another person said it is solely the duty of schools to monitor kids on campus.
“Will we eventually have our principals reporting to the police chief?” asked Christine Faulk.
Mayor Stephen Cassidy called getting part of the grant money a “net gain” for the city, allowing the number of officers on the SLPD to increase from 90 to 92.