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November 30, 2021

Council OK’s funding for school officer program

City, school district to split $483K cost in 2022

A majority of the Gilroy City Council on Nov. 15 agreed to fund a program that will allow police officers to return to local schools shortly.

The council voted 5-2 to approve paying half of the $483,383 cost for the school resource officer program in 2022, with Councilmembers Rebeca Armendariz and Zach Hilton dissenting. The Gilroy Unified School District will pay the rest of the costs following the Board of Education’s Oct. 21 approval.

The Gilroy Police Department and school district established the school resource officer program in 1985, according to Police Chief Pedro Espinoza. Pre-pandemic, there were two school resource officers who made the rounds at various schools in the district, primarily Gilroy and Christopher high schools, but the contract with the police department was not renewed for the 2020-21 school year because students were not on campus due to Covid-19.

But, as Superintendent Deborah Flores pointed out during the school board’s earlier meeting, with most students returning to campus in August, fights and other aggressive behaviors have been on rise on campus as students relearn how to interact with one another in person.

Espinoza added that although the city and GUSD did not have a contract over the past year, the officer previously assigned to schools has still been helping out with various issues on campuses, even after regular school hours. This school year, the officer and school officials have investigated three threats of gun violence on school grounds, according to Espinoza.

Espinoza said the purpose of the school resource officer is not to make arrests on campus, but to “develop and forge relationships” with students and direct those in need to mental health services.

The officer currently identified for the position has completed de-escalation and restorative justice training, among other things, he said.

“We want to make sure we have the right person,” Espinoza said. “Careful selection is the key.”

According to a recent survey of 1,905 people conducted by the district that included students, parents and staff, 44% of students said they felt safe when a school resource officer was on campus, with 49% saying they have not had contact with an officer, and seven percent disagreeing.

Fifty percent of respondents suggested the district provide a combination of officers and counselors, with 11 percent saying the district should discontinue the SRO program. Thirty-nine percent, meanwhile, supported full-time SROs on campus.

Those against adding police officers on campus, meanwhile, say the money would be better spent on programs that address mental health and other resources to support students’ well-being.

Reymundo Armendariz, director of programs for the Community Agency for Resources, Advocacy and Services, said the organization “routinely hears stories of SROs citing young people of color at schools.” He also pointed to the 2020 Santa Clara County Juvenile Justice Annual Report, which showed Gilroy’s 95020 zip code having the most juvenile arrests and citations in the county at 182.

Hilton said he wasn’t convinced that school resource officers are necessary to maintain secure campuses. More investment needs to be made on mental health services and other programs to support students, he suggested.

“It might feel good to tell the public that we have an SRO assigned to Gilroy High School and Christopher High School, but the shared cost of $483,000 seems excessive to me,” he said.

Councilmember Fred Tovar said he sees the SROs as there to “help students, not hurt students.” He added that those against the program should work with officials to “make this a better partnership,” rather than “coming down on our officers.”

“To say they are bad men and women is wrong,” Tovar said. “To say it teaches violence, I have to disagree. It’s helped a lot of people, and we can’t forget about that.”

Armendariz issues statement on shooting

Councilmember Rebeca Armendariz returned to the dais on Nov. 15, after missing the previous council meeting, which was the first since an Oct. 30 shooting during a party on the property where she lives killed one man and injured three others.

“My thoughts are first and foremost for the victims and their families,” she said. “Especially the Zuniga-Macias family, who lost their son and grandson, and all the young people who lost their friend. I know there are many questions on the mind of the public. There’s a lot we would all like to know. I am cooperating with the investigation and ask that we all respect the process as we see it through.”

During the public comment period at the beginning of the meeting, two people, Ron Kirkish of Gilroy and Elia Salinas of Hollister, asked Armendariz to resign from her position. However, the next nine people who spoke showed their support for Armendariz.

Christine Villarreal said she has known Armendariz for more than 30 years, and added that she knows how heartbroken she is over the shooting.

“I know the tragedy has spread locally and nationally,” Villarreal said. “But that does not take away the dedication and service that Rebeca has done for decades in this community.”

Armendariz said she “remains in service as your Gilroy City Council member.”

“I am grateful to the Gilroy Resiliency Center, and all the people and organizations that provided assistance to those who have been impacted,” she said. “My heartfelt appreciation to all of those who reached out to me and my family.”

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