In a controversial decision, San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District officials terminated a contract with the San Mateo Police Department which placed officers on local campuses.
The district Board of Trustees voted 4-1, with Vice President Ken Chin dissenting, during a meeting Thursday, Aug. 6, to dissolve the school resource officer program circulating law enforcement officers through the district’s middle schools.
Citing concerns with inequitable discipline and inadequate data while expressing an interest in reconsidering the nature of the relationship between the two agencies, Trustee Shara Watkins supported the direction.
“This to me doesn’t make the cut in terms of something we should be funding,” said Watkins, of the arrangement requiring the district to pay the Police Department $260,000 for the officers’ presence.
Board President Noelia Corzo agreed, claiming the money traditionally reserved for the police program could be better spent on other initiatives.
“We are taking away dollars from other things we could give to our students,” she said.
Watkins and Corzo collaborated to lead the conversation among officials to end the relationship, with the intent of starting a larger conversation regarding the future of policing campuses.
Looking ahead, Watkins said she expects the district will start gauging community interest regarding how they would hope the next phase of the relationship with the Police Department would look.
Ideally, she said the conversations would include more specific data regarding interactions with police and students. In seeking that information previously, Watkins was displeased with both the school system and police department’s ability to track the race of students contacted by police at campuses.
Recognizing the obligation of both parties to improve their approach, Watkins noted the decision to end the police contract was not spurred by any ill will.
“This is just another system we are asking questions about, just like we would anything,” said Watkins. “It’s not a personal attack on one person or an accusation — we are just doing the work we were elected to do.”
To that end, Watkins said officials have made it a point to reconsider a variety of previously unquestioned pillars of the school system, with the hope of identifying improvements to meet the needs of current students.
In that effort related to the school resource officers, Watkins said it is reasonable to expect there are ways to better the program — but she felt police representatives showed limited interest in searching for such opportunities.
“There doesn’t seem to be an acknowledgement that there is any room for growth or improvement, which makes it hard to have a conversation,” said Watkins.
Rory McMilton, San Mateo Police Officers’ Association president, countered with claims that he felt the program could have been amended if the district has approached the department earlier.
Instead, he alleged the decision was spurred by political grandstanding on the part of Corzo and Watkins.
“I don’t think it is very well thought out,” he said.
Corzo disagreed, noting she raised issues with the contract the last time it was up for board consideration — when officials received a presentation from the department notably similar to the most recent proposal.
“We have been patient. We have been willing to collaborate. We haven’t seen change,” she said.
In previous discussions, department representatives said the program is essential for building strong relationships with students. The partnership is also the platform for the Gang Resistance Education And Training, or GREAT, intervention program which police said builds awareness among local students about the dangers associated with gang affiliation.
“The reality is that gangs do exist in this school district, SROs work daily to minimize the impact the gangs have on disrupting the learning environment,” said McMilton in a prepared statement to the board.
He added the intervention is completed through work of district administrators, counselors, teachers, the police department and other arms of the justice system.
But some school officials indicated they disagreed, claiming they felt some of the programs gave way to unfair and unbalanced policing which targeted communities of color and those from poorer neighborhoods.
The conversation is aligned with similar discussions taking place across the nation, as school officials concerned with social justice are questioning the value of placing police on campuses. Similarly, South San Francisco educators considered amending a relationship with its police department last month, before electing to take more time discussing the issue.
For his part, McMilton said he believes those supporting the decision are joining a political movement to the detriment of their school community.
“I think they went off on some bandwagon. That’s not San Mateo’s voters and probably Foster City as well, based on the feedback I’ve been getting,” said McMilton.
Watkins acknowledged many community members virtually attending the meeting in her district questioned the logic of ending a program they considered effective as well. But she noted many of those critics are not part of the underrepresented communities officials are looking to protect.
“When I think about the voices that are often the loudest, they are not always the voices of people of color or low-income families who are disproportionately impacted by policing,” she said.
Furthermore, Corzo said the decision is partially a function of people from historically underrepresented communities taking positions of power.
“When you have people of color in elected office, you are going to have a different perspective and this is part of that,” she said.
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