Education

Modesto City Schools moves ahead with campus security team

School resource officer Jim Walsh talks with students at Gregori High School during lunch in October 2010. Modesto City Schools has lost its school resource officers, pulled back to fill patrol needs, and will now move forward with a school security team after its board’s approval Tuesday.
School resource officer Jim Walsh talks with students at Gregori High School during lunch in October 2010. Modesto City Schools has lost its school resource officers, pulled back to fill patrol needs, and will now move forward with a school security team after its board’s approval Tuesday. Modesto Bee file

Modesto City Schools will move ahead with forming an eight-member security team by fall to patrol its high schools and see that its junior high students get home safely.

The proposal passed with a unanimous vote of the Modesto City Schools board Tuesday night after hearing from district administrators and Patterson Unified, which started a similar security team this school year.

“In no way, shape or form are we saying these positions are the same as a police officer,” said Ed Miller, the district head of discipline cases and attendance, who will oversee school security. The team will have training and authority well beyond campus supervisors, however.

Team members will be required to have state certification for school security officers, which covers campus-specific issues, as well as training to handle firearms and recognize signs of a student on drugs or who is drunk. Each of the seven large district high schools will have a security officer, with a supervisor stationed at Elliott Alternative Education Center.

School security officers will not carry guns, but will have handcuffs, pepper spray and batons. Each will drive a district-marked patrol car with a cage and emergency lights on the roof, Miller said. He stressed that the team would patrol nearby parks or neighborhoods primarily for student safety, just as principals and assistant principals do now.

In response to gang problems in the airport district, he said, “For several months, I drove all the way to the airport every day to make sure our students got home safely.”

Trustee David Allan questioned having unarmed security guards in a time when parents are worried about the threat of school shootings. Board vice president Steve Grenbeaux said he would vote for the plan “as a step one.”

But the district did not envision an armed force, said Superintendent Pam Able. “They need to know how to handle weapons, should they come across one. We think that’s a good thing – but not to carry them,” Able told the board.

Patterson’s school security team also is unarmed, a condition of its liability insurance carrier, said Superintendent Phil Alfano. He said the move to hire their own, after an initial rough patch, has been good for Patterson schools, and he ticked off several advantages.

Students often talk to school employees more readily than to police, he said. Ever-present school security knows students by name and who their friends are, which allowed the high school security officer to find a runaway teen within hours, Alfano said. Also, he said, “You want to control who you hire. Sometimes officers are transferred into a school resource officer position who really have no desire to work with youth.”

The school team has built a rapport with Patterson peace officers, he said. “Regardless of whether you have a school resource officer, you can keep those lines of communication open,” Alfano told the board.

Hearing Alfano’s experience helped sway trustee Cindy Marks’ vote, she said via video link from Hawaii. “I was very reluctant in coming to this meeting tonight in losing our law enforcement, (but) it sounds like this would actually solve the problem and the dilemma we’ve been put in,” Marks said, referring to the loss of the district’s Modesto Police Department officers.

The department has provided school resource officers under district contract for 25 years, but a staffing shortage caused the department to pull its school officers back to patrol, terminating the $452,500 annual contract with 30 days’ notice.

Able said the security team will not be dissolved if police officers become available again. Its cost is estimated at $250,000 for startup and an annual expense of up to $443,000.

Several parents addressed the board, concerned that minorities and English learners might face uneven treatment at the hands of a security team. “The safety environment has to satisfy parents,” said parent Filipe Alvarez, citing a need for cultural training and ways to deal with language barriers.

The diverse Modesto district may need to supplement state training on cultural differences among kids, said trustee Jordan Dickson. “They don’t come from the same place or respond in the same way,” he said.

The district has made strides in reducing minority suspensions and expulsions, board president Amy Neumann said. “The security division can’t be an island. We can’t go backwards on those things,” she said. Neumann said Patterson’s experience also provided a caution. “We need to have clear protocols with our administrators to make sure this plan implements as smoothly as possible.”

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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