Our View: Modesto schools district shouldn't rush police idea

July 16, 2013 

— It's very appropriate — in fact a legal and moral obligation — for the school board to constantly look for ways to keep Modesto City Schools students and employees safe. Such a discussion is under way, and scheduled for the school board agenda July 29.

Superintendent Pam Able said the strategy might include hiring security guards to supplement campus security staff and the four Modesto police officers who currently divide their time among the high schools and junior high schools.

Trustee Steve Grenbeaux wants to go even a step further — to consider whether Stanislaus County's largest school district should establish its own police force.

We don't have any problem with studying all possibilities — especially if the district can do so without hiring an expensive consultant.

But we see potential problems and a big price tag if the district created its own police force, an expense that would reduce the money available for its primary responsibility of educating youngsters.

Establishing a police force would involve the salaries and benefits not only for officers but also for some support staff and a chief and likely sergeants and-or lieutenants. There would need to be vehicles, communications equipment, uniforms and weapons, most or all of which would be paid for out of the general fund, the same pot of money used for teacher salaries and textbooks.

Money is not our greatest concern, however. About two dozen California school districts have police departments. Most are very large districts, such as Los Angeles, Oakland and Fresno. In those districts, there have been issues raised about whether the officers are issuing too many tickets to middle school students, for instance, and discouraging them rather than helping them stay in school.

The most noteworthy cautionary tale comes from the Sacramento area, where the Twin Rivers School District's police force has been mired in scandals, including accusations of brutality and false arrest, of aggressively issuing traffic tickets and towing vehicles as a means to raise revenue and of responding to calls in other jurisdictions unannounced, unrequested and unwanted.

A Twin Rivers officer was shot while on duty by a suspect who later died while in custody. And all these issues ultimately fell back on the school board, which has been ill-prepared to oversee a police department in addition to teaching and nonteaching staff. Still, the Twin Rivers school board has refused to disband its police department, despite recommendations from the Sacramento police chief and Sacramento County sheriff to do so.

While Twin Rivers is a worst- case example, its problems signal another challenge: School districts typically pay less than city and sheriff's departments and therefore have a hard time hiring and keeping the best officers and chiefs.

Modesto Police Chief Galen Carroll told us he does not plan to remove the officers assigned to the schools because the district is paying for their services. And, he notes, "the school police officers are also a valuable link between the police department and our youth."

If the district hires armed security guards, the MPD would still have to send officers to respond to criminal acts, such as battery or fights unless the district would handle all the discipline measures.

Carroll said the MPD has not had in-depth conversations with Modesto City Schools about its needs. Clearly that needs to happen.

Parents, employees and the public should be invited to weigh in on school safety. It's a critical issue. But there are a lot of ways to address it short of the radical and expensive step of creating a school district police force.

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