Protecting and educating children about bullying, crime and how to resist gangs are key responsibilities for San Mateo’s expanded school resource officer program aimed to support middle and high school students.
The San Mateo City Council approved an agreement between the city, the San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District and the San Mateo Union High School District Monday night. Each entity will now share the cost to assign three police officers to cover the city’s three middle and high schools.
Ensuring children, schools and teachers are kept safe is vital with the rise in school shootings and keeping in mind the student who attempted to bomb Hillsdale High School five years ago, Police Chief Susan Manheimer said.
“Think of all the things we deal with on a school campus, because they are really ground zero for everything going on with a kid. From bullying to social Internet stuff to all of the gang stuff to drugs, everything that they get,” Manheimer said. “And just consequence, kids don’t understand consequences. Who better than police to share with them what consequences are?”
Nine years ago, an officer was assigned to San Mateo High School and since then it went from being one of the least safe schools in the district to one of the safest, Manheimer said.
The program also increased graduation rates and helped eradicate gangs that used to have a very strong presence at school, Manheimer said.
The discussion to expand the program began three years ago and it’s exciting to see it come to fruition, said Molly Barton, assistant superintendent of student services for San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District.
“It takes some work to move away from the punitive model and more into the restorative justice model. So we’re really excited about that,” Barton said. “It’s to catch potential problems sooner, to intervene sooner with dangerous behaviors. I also think we have a lot of children that are growing up in very different environments where they don’t see the police department as their friend but as their enemy. And this provides them with an opportunity really to get to expose kids to citywide resources.”
The school districts will reimburse the city almost $650,000 to fund the three officers for two years, according to a staff report. Each officer will be assigned to a high school and its feeder middle school, according to a staff report.
San Mateo’s current school resource officer, Tracey Unga, will continue to oversee San Mateo High and Bayside Middle School. One new officer will be assigned to cover Abbot Middle School and Hillsdale High and the other will be assigned to Borel Middle School and Aragon High School.
“To get a school resource officer in each public middle and high school gives us the edge on education and awareness. Not just for the students, but for the teachers and staff and the parents that deal with the students. Believe it or not, there is (gang) recruiting that goes on in our middle schools of more naive kids who may not have the social defense mechanisms. So not only are we going to be there to protect our kids, we’re also going to be there to give them those skills,” Manheimer said.
Each of the approximate 3,000 sixth-graders in the district must complete the Gang Resistance Education and Training, or GREAT, program, Barton said.
Manheimer said GREAT is critical because gang intelligence and information indicates middle school-aged children are targeted for recruitment into gangs. Teaching the program will be a primary responsibility for the school officers. They will also patrol the campuses and routes to and from school, check in after school and intervene should any fights or problems arise, Manheimer said.
“[The GREAT program] really goes to the heart of bullying and gang behavior and teaching our kids how to say no and providing alternatives for them so that we can do this early on in a prevention mode rather than having to deal with them once they’ve made bad choices,” Manheimer said.
The City Council was unanimous in providing two additional school resource officers.
“They’re dealing with a lot of issues today. There’s bullying and gangs and I think they need this resource. They need to know there’s someone to go to,” Vice Mayor Maureen Freschet said.
Councilman David Lim said his children attend city schools and having an officer on campus is reassuring.
“You make the kids feel better knowing you’re there, you enhance the quality of education knowing that you’re there, you make the parents feel better knowing that you’re there,” Lim said.
Manheimer said police have stepped up countywide disaster preparedness and efforts to prevent violence at school.
Most of the recent national shootings began on middle and high school campuses and Hillsdale High’s bomb scare highlighted the need for school resource officers, Manheimer said. In 2009, Alexander Youshock, then 17, went onto the Hillsdale High campus carrying a chain saw in a soft guitar case and a tactical vest outfitted with 10 homemade pipe bombs. He planned to kill three teachers and exploded two bombs before being tackled by school staff. No one was seriously injured and Youshock, who was diagnosed schizophrenic, was convicted of attempted murder.
School resource officers will help ensure students are kept safe, educated and deter a life of crime, Manheimer said.
“I think what we’re able to do now is touch on all the kids and all the parents and those who most influence them, which are their teachers and staff,” Manheimer said. “And really do it on a basis where the schools and the police are working together trying to figure out for each and every kid what they need. And that’s a tremendous benefit.”
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