Phoenix Union school district considers return of school resource officers on campuses to address school safety

Officer Edward Toves, shown in a 2018 file photo, when he worked at Westview High School as a school resource officer. His job included visiting classes to teach students about the law. (File photo by Faith Miller/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – In an effort to address student and faculty safety, the Phoenix Union High School District is considering the politically charged issue of bringing back school resource officers to campuses.

The governing board seemed poised to make a decision April 13, but after five hours of public comments and discussion, members decided to postpone any action, saying they wanted two more months to consider options and create a safety plan for the next school year.

“It is our responsibility as a board to be able to create those solutions about what we heard today,” board member Jennifer Hernandez said.

A district safety committee, established at the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year, had held a series of community meetings to hear ideas for increasing safety at Phoenix Union’s 23 schools. On March 29, the committee recommended bringing back the officers.

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School resource officers had been a presence on Phoenix Union campuses until 2020, when the district board voted not to renew an annual agreement with the city of Phoenix to provide SROs. The district cited a cost savings of $1.2 million, which it said it would put toward more counselors and to train and develop school safety teams.

At the time, there were nationwide protests about racial injustice following the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Some called for cities to defund their police departments and set up civilian oversight programs instead.

Then the pandemic hit, causing districts including Phoenix Union to move to remote learning. But with school shootings making news in 2022, there was a renewed call for officers on campus.

Education Week reported 51 school shootings that resulted in injury or death in 2022, with 32 students and eight adults killed and 100 people injured, the most since it began tracking shootings in 2018. There had been 16 shootings leading to death or injury through the end of April this year, bringing the total to 160 such incidents since 2018, according to the EdWeek data.

A report of shots fired at Central High School on Sept. 9, 2022, contributed to the discussion about returning police officers to Phoenix Union campuses. During the incident, the school was placed on lockdown, however, there was no gun found and no evidence that gunshots had been fired.

In a letter sent to parents Sept. 11, 2022, following the incident, the district said “staff, students and parents have increasing concerns about school safety in general – not just in Phoenix Union but nationwide. Increased access to firearms and illegal substances, as well as the disruptions caused by social media threats and posts of violent acts, make school safety procedures and policies more important than ever.”

The Phoenix Unified High School District this week decided to end its contract with the city for school resource officers, a position that has come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks. (File photo by Faith Miller/Cronkite News)

The Phoenix Unified High School District had contracted with the city for school resource officers until 2020. A vote on a plan to renew the SRO program in the schools was postponed last month for more study. (File photo by Cronkite News)

State superintendent favors officers in every school

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne has been a longtime advocate for funding a police officer in every school. He stepped into the issue the day before the Phoenix Union meeting, saying in an April 12 press release that “There is overwhelming support among parents living in the Phoenix Union District, statewide, as well as classroom teachers, to keep children and staff safe by having school resource officers at the schools.”

To support his statement, Horne released a poll commissioned by the Arizona Department of Education of 614 parents by Phoenix-based OH Predictive Insights showing that 78 percent of respondents considered school safety very important and 81 percent supported a law enforcement officer on campus.

Horne said a similar study done in the Phoenix Union district by the Classroom Teachers Association during the 2021-22 school year showed that 80 percent of respondents believed school resource officers should have a role on campus and 82 percent said they witnessed positive interactions between officers and students. The survey engaged with approximately 4,000 members of the district during the 2021-22 school year through surveys, phone calls, public comment and school visits.

Central High School Principal Leticia Avalos said at the April 13 board meeting that having an officer on campus improves response time in an emergency.

“When we had SROs on campus, we were able to bypass 911, as they would simply call straight to dispatch using the radio on their shoulder,” Avalos said. “A vast majority of our administrators are in support of what the District Safety Committee is proposing.”

Guillermo Vazquez, an alumnus of Maryvale High School, said “as a student in the district, there were SROs on campus and we had a pretty good relationship with them. As a parent, I feel good knowing there are SROs to respond quickly when there is a need, because I want any threat addressed quickly to keep my child safe.”

Support for officers is not unanimous

But the support for reintroducing SROs is not unanimous. During the district school board meeting at Carl Hayden High School, 74 people signed up to voice their opinion on SROs. The call to the public lasted two hours.

Jayden Huerta, a youth organizer at Puente Human Rights Movement Arizona, asked the board to consider a safety model that does not involve police.

“Police are not qualified, and never will be qualified, to deal with our children,” Huerta said. “Police won’t be understanding, they won’t be patient, they won’t be kind. The Phoenix Police Department … won’t de-escalate but instead will antagonize our students. They will agitate them and will make them feel afraid and on edge. How do we expect our students to learn when they feel so tense?”

The Justice Department announced a civil rights investigation of the Phoenix Police Department in August 2021. The investigation is assessing all types of use of force, including deadly force, by the police department.

Those who oppose law enforcement on school campuses point to research that says having an officer on campus does not reduce school violence. A 2021 study by the Rand Corp. RAND and the University at Albany found that in U.S. schools studied between 2014 and 2018, resource officers reduced some forms of violence in schools but did not prevent school shootings or gun-related incidents.

In a study released in 2019 by the Journal of Adolescent Health, research concluded that the presence of a school officer was not associated with any reduction in school shooting severity. In a different study, the U.S. Secret Service looked at 41 incidents on school campuses that occurred from 2008 to 2017. Of 20 schools with an SRO on campus that had an incident, 12 of the officers made it to the scene within one minute.

During the April 13 Phoenix Union district meeting, students and parents expressed concerns about how minorities in general are treated by police. The 2021 Rand research showed that schools with SROs reported more suspensions, expulsions, police referrals and student arrests, and those harsher disciplinary punishments fell disproportionately on Black students, male students and students with disabilities.

On its website, Phoenix Union District reports that 81.7% of its population is Hispanic, 8.3% is Black and 4.4% is white, according to the district diversity report.

Chandler Police Department Officer Stephen Dieu says school resource officers open the lines of communication between students and law enforcement. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Dieu)

Chandler Police Department Officer Stephen Dieu says school resource officers open the lines of communication between students and law enforcement. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Dieu)

Other districts have had success with SROs

The Arizona Department of Education has a state-funded grant called the School Safety Program, which pays for SROs, juvenile probation officers, school counselors and school social workers on school campuses. In the 2022-2023 school year, the program funded 140 SROs in Arizona schools. The grant pays for the salary and benefits of a full-time SRO and also $100 for classroom supplies for each officer.

The Chandler Police Department has 11 officers who serve as SROs for the Chandler, Kyrene and Mesa public school districts. Seven of the positions are funded by the Arizona Department of Education. The officers are assigned to high schools, junior high schools and middle schools for the entire school year.

They are trained by the Arizona Department of Education in partnership with Law for Kids, which allows officers to instruct law-related education classes. In addition, SROs are provided training and networking opportunities among other SROs from across the state and nation, according to the Chandler Police Department.

The Chandler program has been recognized as a model agency by the National Association of School Resource Officers.

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Officer Stephen Dieu has been with Chandler Police Department for 18 years and is an SRO at Chandler High School. He also is president of the Arizona School Resource Officers Association.

“We’re not there to replace any positions, we’re there to complement,” Dieu said. “And to be essentially exactly what we’re called, a resource.”

He said SROs work hard to build relationships with students and faculty so that the lines of communication can be open during incidents.

“We talk about it, we train about it, we provide in-service training to teachers,” Dieu said. “Officers will often have meetings with the parent organizations on campus. I provide consultation about emergency response procedures.”

As for building relationships with students, Dieu said, having a resource on campus breaks down the barriers that might exist between the community’s youth and law enforcement.

“When you can have a positive interaction with a young person, who might have engaged in poor decision making, and you’re able to help them through some of the difficulties that they’re facing and then be able to visit with them on a future date and see the positive impact you’ve had, it’s tremendously rewarding,” he said.

Safety committee wants consistency across campuses

In recommending the return of SROs, the Phoenix Union Governing Board Student Safety Committee drafted guiding principles to provide consistency across campuses:

  • Phoenix Union and the Phoenix Police Department should collaborate to reduce and prevent crime, violence and victimization.
  • Students and adults require different supports and any intervention with students should be developmentally appropriate.
  • It is a shared goal to minimize student involvement with the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
  • Clear understanding of Phoenix Union and Phoenix Police Department responsibilities is imperative in all collaborations and coordinated responses.
  • Effective, timely community and coordination of efforts when necessary is essential for both parties in fulfilling their missions to serve the community.
  • Respect for the rights of all individuals is fundamental.
  • Phoenix Union and the Phoenix Police Department will work together to uphold and promote both rights and responsibilities for all members of the community at all times.

“The consistency across campuses was one big thing that a lot of people wanted to bring up, and that if we were going to move into a big new endeavor like this, that we would want to see the ability to have people move from one school to the next and not feel like they have to relearn what’s going on,” said Katie Gipson-McLean, chairperson for the safety committee.

The committee also recommended a process for choosing officers that said officers must have no infractions; a relevant degree; prior experience working with youth or training; be bilingual, and be selected by a committee of students, families and administrative personnel.

Grace Mack(she/her/hers)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Grace Mack expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in sustainability. Mack plans to apply her major toward producing nature documentaries and sustainability news articles.