Visalia Unified school board narrowly renews contract with VPD to have youth service officers on campus
VISALIA – Police officers around the country have faced much scrutiny over the last few months, and many people are analyzing their role in society. There have been calls locally at city council meetings to defund the police and now residents are asking school districts to take cops off school campuses.
The Visalia Unified School District (VUSD) board was about to renew its contract with the Visalia Police Department for youth service officers (YSOs) at high school campuses at its July 28 meeting when board member Lucia Vazquez pulled the item from the consent calendar for discussion. The contract provided 10 full-time officers to cover all four high schools and five middle schools as well as the continuation high school and community day school for the next two school years and totaled $3.6 million split between the district (44.5%) and the city of Visalia (55.5%).
Prior to voting on the item, board members heard comments from five different parents who urged the board to vote against the item and end its policy of having officers on campus.
Karen Guarardo said the $3 million contract could be better spent on student-led solutions for restorative justice practices and racial bias training for teachers to better understand the school to prison pipeline of criminalizing youth.
“It is a disgrace to see young people advocating to defund and remove police presence on campus and you continue to increase budgets for this instead,” Guarardo said. “You are not listening to students, you are not prioritizing their well-being.”
Visalia native Gloria Ariasa said she never felt safe having a police officer on campus as a student at Mt. Whitney High School and said it was “foolish” to think an officer would help create a positive environment for students.
“You could spend millions on meaningful resources in students,” Ariasa said. “If you care about the success of all students, then invest in them and not police officers.”
Evelyn Rodriguez asked the board to invest the funds in afterschool programming and vocational resources, hiring more psychologists and school counselors and creating an ethnic studies course.
Former VUSD student Yned Gutierrez agreed saying that more counselors and better trained educators would be more helpful in diffusing conflict and addressing issues on campus, which is why some districts across the country have canceled their officer contracts. She said students of color do not feel safe with cops on campus because that results in more detention and higher suspension rates in the district, so much so that the ACLU has stepped in with a lawsuit against our very own district. In 2018-19, African American and American Indian students were suspended at double the rate of white students but white students’ suspension rate was almost the same as Hispanic or Latino students, according to the California Department of Education. African American students had a higher likelihood of having multiple suspensions than any other ethnicity.
“If we know that’s true, how can we expect students of color will not face any harm by having cops on campus?” Gutierrez asked. “There should be no criminalization for student behaviors.”
Board member Lucia Vazquez removed the item because she wanted to add language that would allow the district to remove an officer as YSO if they are being investigated for allegations of not following up on issues or for issues related to racial bias.
“I have nothing against VPD, and have heard wonderful things, but we’re hearing from a lot of people in the community that have concerns,” Vazquez said. “If there is a bad apple that we do have a mechanism, good expectation is not good enough for our contract.”
Superintendent Tamara Ravalin said officers are not district employees, so any disciplinary action would be evaluated and decided by the Visalia Police Department. Ravalin said the district did not have the authority to alter terms of the contract when it comes to disciplinary action of an officer because it would violate several laws such as the officer’s bill of rights and collective bargaining agreements. If an issues with a YSO comes up, Ravalin said the district would report the incident to Mimi Bonds, director of student services, who would then liaison with the police department before leaving it in their hands.
“The language is not strong enough, and if we still don’t have any teeth, that needs to be part of the contract,” Vazquez said. “I can’t vote for a contract that doesn’t give us a little more teeth than that.”
The district’s attorney, Megan Macy with Lozano Smith, also cautioned board members to tread lightly when it comes to personnel issues of another agency’s employees.
Board member Walta Gamoian said during her 30 years as an educator in Visalia, the YSOs she has worked with were outstanding, especially in filing charges of child abuse against students’ family members.
“There is already plenty of accountability,” Gamoian said. “I think we need to vote for this contract.”
Doug Cardoza, assistant superintendent of instructional services, said officers play a vital role in helping the school and student deal with issues of child abuse and neglect. During his 16 years as a school administrator, Cardoza said 95% of the times he worked closely with a YSO it was for allegations of child abuse.
“You don’t hear about those things but they play a huge role at the elementary school level,” Cardoza said.
Board member Niessen Foster asked if there has ever been a case where a YSO has been removed for the use of excessive force.
“Not in my seven years here in the district,” Ravalin said.
Board member Juan Guerrero said he recalled an incident in the 1980s where an officer was removed from the schools for excessive force. Instead of rewriting the contract, Guerrero suggested approving the contract and then having staff work on an addendum to require YSOs to attend the district’s cultural competency and implicit bias training, something officers used to do during Stan Carrisoza’s tenure as superintendent.
Macy said there was a solid legal foundation for the addendum as VPD and its YSOs had an obligation to collaborate with site staff, which could include cross training. Ravalin said all VPD officers go through discrimination and harassment training, as well as gender and racial bias each year and a training that is probably more intensive than the district’s own.
“The district spends a lot of money to this and they are part of campuses and be apart of our training,” Vazquez said. “I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
Guerrero made the motion to approve the contract with an addendum to add collaborative implicit bias training to the list of obligations for YSOs. When the motion died for lack of a second, Gamioan made a second motion to approve the contract as is. It was seconded by Naylor and approved 4-3, with Vazquez, Guerrero and Foster voting no.
The discussion about officers on school campuses has not dissuaded other school districts in Tulare County either. On June 30, the Tulare County Board of Supervisors approved renewal agreements for school resource officers with Tulare Joint Union High School District and Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified High School District totaling $201,646.
In Sacramento, state superintendent Tony Thurmond has created a special task force to look at the role of police officers in schools and the impact that law enforcement presence has on students, learning, and campus safety. On June 30, Thurmond convened a three-part panel discussion that examined: different models of school policing, research and data on the impact and consequences of police officers in schools, and a framework for potential policy recommendations for reimagining school safety.
“These are tough conversations that we have to have,” said Thurmond. “Addressing these challenges head-on will help steer us in the right direction. In looking at these issues, we do have to acknowledge that implicit bias and racism does exist, but doing this work together and keeping our students as the most important focus, will allow us to provide solutions that will not only keep our students safe but will make our school communities stronger. We must take all steps to ensure our students are not criminalized.”
The Task Force on Safe Schools was created in response to the current social climate that is focused on racial justice and putting a spotlight on implicit bias and institutional racism. During the hearing, participants heard reports from State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond and researchers from WestEd and the UCLA Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. Together, they provided an in-depth overview of data that indicates schools with police are not measurably safer than those without. Additionally, the research review indicated that schools with police had a disproportionate number of students of color arrested and removed from campuses.
The meeting also included viewpoints from law enforcement organizations including the National Association of School Resource Officers, the Richmond Police Department and the San Diego Unified School District Police Department, who shared personal stories about the positive relationships school officers have cultivated with the students they serve.
Prior to the hearing, the State Superintendent provided a framework for policy recommendations including: establishing immediate best practices and requirements for school police; promoting and funding alternative programs such as restorative justice and intervention programs; and creating more data collection, monitoring, and accountability.
“This framework is not one-size-fits-all,” said Thurmond. “More research needs to be done so we can be clear regarding what the best alternatives are to current school police programs. The reality is that districts may elect to keep police officers on campuses, but there needs to be better training for officers and school staff in restorative justice practices. School police officers should not be viewed as or put in the position to be the school disciplinarian.”
At the conclusion of the hearing State Superintendent Thurmond outlined next steps, including future conversations in the coming weeks with state legislators on exploring funding for resources to implement restorative justice practices and training in areas such as de-escalation techniques and crisis management. Thurmond also announced the formation of a committee comprised of task force research partners and police organizations to review data and trends.
An archived broadcast of the hearing can be found on the California Department of Education (CDE) Facebook page.