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New uniforms and more training coming for San Diego Unified school police amid scrutiny of law enforcement

School police officer Jesus Montana is pictured in 2016.
(File)

District officials say they want more positive interactions between students and school police.

The San Diego Unified School District will increase training for school police and principals and change school police uniforms in an effort to improve interactions between students and officers.

The school board unanimously approved the changes Nov. 10 in response to nationwide scrutiny of police after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the protests that followed.

A group of San Diego Unified students also held protests in the summer, calling for the district to defund school police. The group argued that police on campus make some students of color feel they’re under surveillance or that they could be arrested over something minor because of racial bias.

“As students, when most of us think of police, we see what we see on TV or hear in our communities,” Brianna Brown, a senior at Hoover High School, said during the Nov. 10 board meeting. “The school police officers aren’t who we see on TV or the news. As students, we don’t know that because the only thing we see are the badge and the gun.”

Experts have found that increased police presence at schools has led to more law enforcement referrals of students, including for minor offenses. Black students are disproportionately affected and are more likely to be arrested at school, similar to how they are more likely to be suspended and otherwise punished at school.

San Diego Unified police made 127 school-based arrests during the 2018-19 school year, down 79 percent from 10 years ago, a district spokeswoman said.

The district has said it will not eliminate or defund its school police, who are meant to protect schools from outside threats such as shootings and human trafficking as well as to support students and staff. About three-fifths of San Diego Unified school police are people of color, according to the district.

Officials instead convened a working group that included students and two school police officers to draft potential reforms to help foster more positive relationships between students and school police and mitigate students’ fears.

The school board unanimously approved the working group’s proposed reforms.

The changes include more training for campus leaders on when and why to call police and how to differentiate between school discipline matters and criminal matters to avoid criminalizing students when it’s not necessary.

There also will be more training for school police on how to engage with youths and community members.

“Once students see school police officers as allies instead of enemies, they will be able to feel the safety they are supposed to represent,” Brown said.

San Diego Unified police already get training about implicit bias, cultural proficiency, de-escalation tactics, trauma-informed response, adolescent brain development and more, school officials have said.

Another recommendation from the working group was to redesign school police uniforms to make school police look more approachable, said Bruce Bivins, an area superintendent.

The school district needs to negotiate with the school police union before implementing the changes, said district Chief Human Resources Officer Acacia Thede.

The changes have drawn some concern from the San Diego Schools Police Officers Association, which represents 34 school police officers in the district, said Jay Gresham, president of the police union.

San Diego Unified school police have been focused for years on developing positive relationships with students, Gresham said, adding that people seem to be lumping San Diego school police with city police.

Unlike city police, he said, school police are specifically trained to deal with youths, and they spend more time developing relationships with students.

“We want to be able to show the staff and the community that we do a lot more than just arresting students, because I think that’s the biggest perception,” Gresham said. “We operate on a different philosophy than most municipalities, because we can take the time to support the efforts of the students in need.”

Among the approved changes, Gresham said he’s concerned about having school officers serving campuses across an entire school cluster, which he worries might spread officers too thin.

Gresham said the department already is understaffed. The union’s 34 officers serve a total of more than 170 schools in the district.

School police spend time walking around campus and greeting people, Gresham said. Some officers lead sports teams or run their own youth clubs at school, where they mentor or tutor students.

The school police department also has a “True Blue Buddies” program in which, every year, school police “adopt” a primarily low-income school. They take the students on shopping sprees and field trips, share a Thanksgiving meal with students and their families and mentor students throughout the year.

If officers are told to serve more schools, they may have less time to develop positive relationships with students, Gresham said.

“Bouncing around, they’re only gonna see us in an enforcement capacity, which won’t help with that situation,” Gresham said.

Regarding uniforms, Gresham noted that several years ago San Diego Unified school officers wore polo shirts instead of traditional police uniforms. The district switched officers back to traditional uniforms as a deterrent amid growing concerns about school shootings nationwide, Gresham said.

The police union was not invited to be part of the working group that drafted the changes presented to the school board. San Diego Unified Police Chief Mike Marquez and one school police officer were the only police representatives on the working group.

Still, Gresham said, the union hopes to work with the district on implementing the changes and supports the district’s goal of addressing the community’s concerns about police. ◆