San Jose schools prioritize student wellness over cops
Piedmont Hills High School is part of the East Side Union High School District in San Jose. The school board passed a policy in 2020 to keep police off district campuses. File photo.

    Two of Santa Clara County’s largest school districts took police off campuses in the wake of the 2020 killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Three years later, advocates said that decision has allowed schools to focus on student wellness.

    The districts have expanded mental health programs and other services in lieu of funding contracts for police officers. East Side Union High School and Alum Rock Union School districts passed policies to keep law enforcement off campus in 2020 on the same night. Both districts still use officers for emergencies, but their reduced involvement means student mental health has been prioritized, school officials said.

    East Side Union High School District removed police from campuses after a community petition pulled in more than 2,400 signatures sparked by Floyd’s killing. Superintendent Glenn Vander Zee said addressing safety and student discipline is up to district administrators. He said the district mainly used officers for security prior to 2020. The district enrolls more than 21,000 students across 19 high schools and adult education programs.

    “Police officers… should not be involved in the disciplinary response,” Vander Zee told San José Spotlight. “(It’s) the responsibility of the administrative staff and educators at that site.”

    Vander Zee said there was an uptick in student behavioral issues following distance learning, as students adjusted from online learning to interacting with others in classrooms. But the district opted to invest funding in social workers and expand wellness centers and mental health services, he said.

    “Are there… members of the public that would prefer to have the district use its funds to have police officers on campus all the time? Absolutely. There are other staff members and members of the community that feel differently,” Vander Zee said.

    Breaking the school-to-prison pipeline

    Alum Rock Union School District board member Corina Herrera-Loera said tackling the school-to-prison pipeline starts with limiting interactions with law enforcement, especially for young students. She said the district has been able to focus on getting more mental health counselors and staff for every school in the district, which enrolls more than 8,500 students across more than 20 elementary and middle schools.

    “It was just important to get (police) off the campuses and reinvest those resources into our children,” Herrera-Loera told San José Spotlight. “At an elementary school age, I don’t believe we need officers addressing our children.”

    Angela James, research director for the UCLA Center for the Transformation of Schools, said ongoing studies suggest positive impacts to school climate and student engagement for districts that don’t rely on police. James said in many cases, those resources are shifted to invest in wellness and restorative justice programs. For campuses that still have police, officers usually do work that could be done by other staff members, such as checking up on students who are not in class, she added.

    “The current rationale is that police keep ‘crime’ off campuses and keep students and staff safe,” James told San José Spotlight. “No study has ever confirmed this rationale… In fact, there is considerable evidence to the contrary.”

    Not all districts have made a decision to end having police on campus. San Jose Unified School District, the county’s largest school district, is still contemplating the question through a community advisory committee created in December 2021. The district ended its partnership with the San Jose Police Department in June 2021, but about a month later reversed its decision and brought back officers as “private security guards” for event security purposes. In June 2022 the board expanded its contract with police, allowing schools to use officers on campus in any capacity.

    San Jose Unified School District officials declined to comment, pointing to the district’s advisory committee website.

    San José Spotlight’s review of minutes from the committee meetings shows that as of now, the district still pays for officers on campus through short-term limited services agreements. The officers are responsible for fostering relationships with students and supporting staff in confiscating illegal items on campuses. Officers are not involved in student discipline, documents show. 

    Dilza Gonzalez, SOMOS Mayfair organizing and policy manager, said Alum Rock Unified School District’s decision to keep police off campuses involved community advocacy from parents and students. But concerns with law enforcement are not new, especially in a district with a high student of color population, she added.

    Gonzalez said terminating police contracts means much-needed funds go toward tackling problems in the community, including access to basic needs, such as food and child care.

    “We started the conversation around the role that police officers play in our communities and also what exactly our kids need to ensure that our people of color feel safe,” Gonzalez told San José Spotlight. “We have always known that (school) resource officers are not the answer.”

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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