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Supervisors vote to keep deputies on school campuses

LOS ANGELES — The county Board of Supervisors voted May 30 to renew contracts for deputies to police public schools, but asked Sheriff Jim McDonnell to better define their role on campus and provide more training.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas recommended training on adolescent development, childhood trauma, conflict resolution and de-escalating campus incidents.

Ridley-Thomas and Supervisor Hilda Solis, who co-authored the motion, pointed to an increasing law enforcement presence in schools, prompted by high-profile campus shootings and “zero tolerance” policies on misbehavior. They urged a review of best practices.

“We want to see young people thriving, we don’t want to see unnecessary expulsions,” Solis said, adding that she would like more data on the effectiveness of the program.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl went a step further and voted against renewing the contracts.

“I think it’s totally inappropriate to have any kind of armed, uniformed law enforcement officers on our campuses,” Kuehl said.

A study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice in 2009 found that students at schools with student resource officers were nearly three times as likely to be arrested.

California school officials are more apt to refer students of color to police, according to an analysis of U.S. Department of Education statistics by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU also found that most school districts give staffers absolute discretion to call police to handle issues ranging from bullying to vandalism and very few policies limit police contact for minor offenses.

Many school officials turned up to praise the school resource officer program, saying it prevented suicides, preempted fights and helped keep drugs off campus.

“This program represents what is best about community-based policing,” said Annette Ledesma, a parent and administrator at a school in the Whittier Union High School District, who called the deputy at her school “indispensable.”

He makes “house calls” to urge chronically absent kids to come to school, helps parents with social media issues and mentors students, Ledesma said. And when the school was recently faced with a dangerous threat, he was the reason the campus could be quickly locked down, she added.

Others agreed that deputies served a critical public safety function and had the trust of parents and students.

“I do feel safer knowing that there’s an officer on campus,” parent Mary O’Keefe told the board.

Supervisor Janice Hahn said she had heard that positive feedback from others and believed having deputies on hand could help build a record of “positive interactions with those in law enforcement.”

The discussion came as McDonnell sought to renew the school resource deputy program for the next five years.

Twenty school districts in the county participate in the program and have either an armed deputy on campus full-time or a deputy available on call.

Most of the schools that contract with the program are high schools, but the list includes a handful of middle schools and some elementary schools in the Lawndale Elementary School District, according to the supervisors’ motion.

The program is staffed by 40 deputies and a sergeant and brought in more than $585,000 in annual revenues for the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she was open to a review of the program but pushed for a five-year renewal.

“The SROs are important for my district,” Barger said.

Based on Ridley-Thomas’ motion, the contract was renewed for two years with three one-year options to re-up after that.

The board asked the Sheriff’s Department to report back in 90 days.