Education

Modesto schools weigh security team to replace lost PD officers

School Security Officer Michael Joh son talks to junior Clyiesha Thigpen at Patterson High as he walks the campus during lunch Wednesday.
School Security Officer Michael Joh son talks to junior Clyiesha Thigpen at Patterson High as he walks the campus during lunch Wednesday. naustin@modbee.com

It is the best of times; it is the worst of times. But this is not a tale of two cities, just one. Modesto’s schools, paid with state revenue, have raises in pocket and millions more to spend. Modesto’s police, meanwhile, have hunkered down to cope with staffing cuts and flat funding.

The same dichotomy is being felt across the still-depressed Central Valley, where sales-tax-dependent city income lags even as education coffers fill, thanks to the coastal economic revival and a rise in school funding. The lopsided taxpayer input intersects at school security, with patrol needs pulling school resource officers away from campuses.

Ceres Unified School District and Ceres police split the cost of two school resource officers. But this year the city could not afford to keep up its end, and the district had the wherewithal to pay for a service it sees as essential, said Ceres Unified Superintendent Scott Siegel. “We have a very nice relationship with Ceres PD. We want the (officers) in this time period,” he said.

The Ceres Unified board approved an expanded contract Thursday for three Ceres police school resource officers at their campuses. The $409,567.50 pact covers all costs and special uniforms for 2015-18.

Patterson Unified School District, faced with competing needs for its one Stanislaus County sheriff’s deputy, went a different direction. It dropped its contract with the county, forming its own three-person school security team on campuses starting this fall.

“I think it’s been a good thing for a couple of reasons. It puts the deputy back on the streets where he’s needed, and it gives us three people instead of one with very little more money,” Patterson Superintendent Phil Alfano said.

The Modesto Police Department announced mid-December that staffing shortages would mean taking back its school resource officers for patrol duties, cutting short its contracts with Modesto City Schools and the Stanislaus County Office of Education.

One officer served the Petersen Alternative Center for Education, run by SCOE, for $112,000 a year. A SCOE spokeswoman said a Stanislaus County probation officer remains at each of its alternative education sites.

Modesto City Schools was paying $452,500 this year to cover school-year duty for three MPD officers (80 percent of salary) and all of a fourth officer’s salary, a collaboration in place for 25 years.

Modesto police Chief Galen Carroll said the issue was never the contract amount, but a rash of officers leaving for other agencies or retiring before new recruits could be trained. “This is 100 percent a staffing issue for the police department,” Carroll said via email. “The reality of our current situation is we are trying to police this city with less than one working officer per 1,000 residents,” he said. That’s 209 officers for 24-hour protection of 204,933 people, by Census Bureau count.

The department will step up patrols at key times to keep an eye on schools, he said. “We are looking at having our traffic officers work in the area of the high schools at the beginning of the school day and our Crime Reduction Team work in the area of the schools when letting out to help provide safety at the beginning and end of the school day,” Carroll said.

Modesto high schools have five to six campus supervisors roving the grounds in carts. All seven schools will add a campus supervisor starting Monday as students return from winter break, administrators said, a quick fix in the face of a 30-day notice from MPD. But a more permanent replacement is in the works. The Modesto City Schools board will weigh in on forming a school security team Jan. 20, said Superintendent Pam Able.

“Student safety is our top priority and we are diligently working on our plan to maintain safe campuses, create our own security team and do what is best for our students,” Able said. The plan is to have school security officers in place at all seven regular high schools as school begins in the fall. All officers would have district cars to patrol near the campus and to monitor safe trips home for junior high students, she said.

“A school security supervisor would be housed at Elliott (Alternative Education Center),” Able said. “This person would be the direct supervisor of the security officers, and a requirement for this position would be a law enforcement background or extensive experience in the field of security.”

The security team would be a part of the support staff bargaining unit, as campus supervisors are, said Aaron Castro, president of the Modesto chapter of the California School Employees Association. Castro said he has not seen a job description, but his understanding is the new positions would require training to use handcuffs, but not pepper spray. That goes beyond what campus supervisors are trained to do.

“Campus supervisors talk people down, but doing physical holds is not in the job description. It’s one of those Catch-22s. It doesn’t say they have to do it, but if you see a kid being beat up, you have to do something,” Castro said Friday.

Working cost estimates for the proposed security team sit at about $300,000 for equipment and startup, and an ongoing tab of less than $375,000 a year for eight school security officers. The estimate pencils out to roughly $46,500 in pay and benefits per person per year, compared with about $21,000 to $28,000 for a school-days-only campus supervisor, and $112,000 per police officer under the city contract.

The Modesto district has studied Patterson Unified’s team in preparing its own proposal, Able said.

Patterson Unified’s three school security officers carry handcuffs, pepper spray and a baton, said School Security Officer Supervisor Vince Lopez. They do not carry guns – nixed by the district’s insurer – but are trained to handle them in case someone else brings one onto campus. “If there’s an emergency call, of course we’re going to call 911,” Lopez said.

Lopez, a former federal security guard, is the traveling team member. He watches traffic near schools at drop-off time, walks the continuation campus, answers business complaints about students and checks chronic absentees. Michael Johnson, a former police officer, is assigned to Patterson High full time. The district is hiring a third person for Creekside Middle School.

“You get into a lot of emotion when you talk about school safety. But, honestly, I think we’re better protected with three people than with one,” Alfano said. The lone deputy had increasingly been pulled away, leaving the schools with no police presence more than a quarter of the previous school year. “He was dealing with, in all fairness, more important problems, but it left us vulnerable.”

The change provides “a consistent presence,” said Patterson High Assistant Principal Kevin Salaiz. “It’s made a big difference in a lot of the little things,” he said.

Johnson coaches freshman basketball and attends school football games. He walks the school, sending stragglers back to class. At all times he’s a watchful set of eyes and a reassuring presence, said Principal Tonya Bibbins.

After a slow start – with students and deputies – the team has built trust and connections with both, Lopez said. The Sheriff’s Department designated two school liaison officers that Lopez meets with regularly and shares information. “I think we’ve worked out a lot of the kinks,” he said.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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