The Gilroy Unified School District plans to bring back school resource officers to two high schools, part of a program to improve school safety after officials noted an uptick in fights 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.
On Oct. 21, the Board of Education voted 6-1 to pay half of the $483,382 contract for the two school resource officers, with the remaining costs to be considered by the Gilroy City Council at a later date. Trustee Tuyen Fiack dissented.
Pre-pandemic, GUSD had two school resource officers, 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.
With most students returning to campus in August, Superintendent Deborah Flores said schools have seen a “real increase in certain types of behaviors, especially fights.”
“The pandemic and the school closure have definitely impacted our students’ behaviors, some of whom suffered various forms of trauma that is still influencing their actions,” she said. “Our students are relearning how to interact with each other and staff.”
Deborah Padilla, director of curriculum and instruction for secondary schools, said the district is not looking at the “older model” of police in schools, with “officers standing at a metal detector” and making arrests.
“We’re looking at a school resource officer program that focuses on a community building relationship that is on campus to support our students and help us with some of our diversion programs,” she said.
Under the proposed agreement between the city and school district, the officer will be required to participate in GUSD’s restorative justice training, with candidates preferred to be bilingual.
Rarely would a student be arrested on campus, according to Flores, saying such incidents would only happen in the event of a serious crime on campus where police would be called.
So far this school year, the district has reported 84 incidents at its high schools involving fights, alcohol/drugs or other incidents that resulted in disciplinary action. That is an increase compared to the pandemic-shortened in-person year of 2019-20, where 50 incidents were reported. The year prior, there were 106 incidents, according to district data.
The SROs are only part of the program to improve school safety, Padilla noted.
In August, the district hired three more mental health therapists, bringing the total to eight, according to Student Services Director Anna Pulido. It also recently expanded services with various community organizations to provide counseling and other supportive services for students on campus.
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 7% disagreeing.
Fifty percent of respondents suggested the district provide a combination of officers and counselors, with 11% saying the district should discontinue the SRO program. Thirty-nine percent, meanwhile, supported full-time SROs on campus.
Community Agency for Resources, Advocacy and Services of South Santa Clara County (CARAS) youth case manager Gabriela Mendoza said the majority of Latino families that she works with are “stressed out” about officers being on campus.
“The fact that officers will be hired to be on school campuses only brings fear within the Latino population,” she said. “This only makes things worse, not any better for youth to focus in school after social distancing for over a year.”
Mendoza added that the district should reallocate the funds toward programs that support character development and mental health, among other resources.
Fiack said she felt the district was “bringing a gun to a fist fight” with the addition of SROs.
“That doesn’t feel right to me,” she said. “I think there are other alternatives we haven’t discussed or really explored.”
Fiack suggested that the district form a committee of students, parents, community members and others to discuss school safety and analyze the work of the SROs.
Trustee Mark Good said he strongly supported SROs.
“The data and surveys we’ve seen that were conducted by the district don’t support the generalized notions of SROs being evil,” he said.