As the Tempe Union High School District Governing Board prepares for a study session tonight on two members’ controversial request to not fund school resource officers on four campuses – including Desert Vista and Mountain Pointe – they’ve found an unlikely ally.
“I don’t like the idea of having police officers in our schools,” Councilman Sal DiCiccio told AFN in an interview last week.
DiCiccio’s stance puts him in the same camp as board members Andres Barraza and Brian Garcia, who want $450,000 earmarked for SROS at Desert Vista, Mountain Pointe, Corona del Sol and McClintock to be used for counselors instead.
While the board will take no vote on the proposal until next month, it will conduct a study session beginning at 4 p.m. today.
Because the meeting will only be virtual, viewable on the district’s Facebook page, public comment will be limited to the comment section on the site.
But hundreds of parents, students, alumni and staff have made their opinions known in recent weeks to voice support and opposition to the proposal.
DiCiccio has a reputation for his strong law-and-order positions on issues and his support of police.
But when it comes to having officers on campuses, he said, their presence diminishes schools’ ability to have kids learn how to resolve their own differences.
He harkened to his own high school years, saying he often got into fights because he was picked on a lot.
“Back then the teachers would pull you to a room and say ‘you guys figure out,’” he explained. “It teaches you how to work out problems. Today, we have kids in schools, they get in a fight and it’s already an action that affects their record.
“So, I have issues with that. I have real problems with that. Kids will be problems, that’s the way it is. And the police are always going to be a step away in our community.
“If there’s a police action needed, they’ll be there on time. I know it sounds so weird – I’m coming from the left – but I’m looking at it purely in a logical way.”
“I get the safety part of it, I understand that,” DiCiccio said. “I’m just looking at the police action itself. This is where the counselors and the school need to be able to handle their problems.”
“A cop’s not a counselor,” he added. “They can’t handle the students’ personal problems.”
He said that campus shootings should not be the major issue in the debate over SROs because “the police officer is now put in a bad position every day.”
“A lot of these problems that they are dealing with – they need counselors,” DiCiccio said, adding:
“Kids today have more pressure on them than we ever did and it’s wrong. …They’re driven to a point where they feel like they can’t do anything right anymore.”
Stating “there are more pressures on these kids today that a police officer cannot handle,” DiCiccio said there are times when a police officer is needed at a school but that districts could hire far less expensive security guards who are trained or have a military background.
Proponents of SROs cite, among other things, the rash of school shootings that have plagued the nation with increasing frequency in recent years as a reason for funding the positions.
They also say that uniformed police officers on campus are not only a comforting reassurance to students concerned about safety, but also interact in a positive manner with students regularly and work with counselors to help troubled teens.
Former Kyrene School Board member Bernadette Coggins expressed alarm over the possibility of abolishing SROs at the four campuses or having one officer responsible for more than one campus.
She said Tempe Union SROs have a reputation for focusing on student support rather than discipline and the district needs them in the mix with social workers and counselors to address students’ social-emotional needs.
DiCiccio two years ago held a forum with superintendents – including Dr. Jan Vesely from Kyrene – to discuss school security following the deadly Valentine’s Day massacre that took the lives of 17 people, including 14 students, at a Florida high school.
During that discussion, Phoenix Police officers gave superintendents some ideas on how to make their schools and campuses safer with modifications of their infrastructure as well as additional security measures since some of the school chiefs there had either no SROs or not enough for all their campuses.
Police also stressed that it is up to school districts to cover the cost of SROs – which can range from $80,000 to more than $100,000 in salary and benefits.
Opponents of SROs say that students’ mental and emotional health has been critically affected by the prolonged closing of campus and the pandemic’s continuing disruption of school and their personal lives, as well as the lives of their relatives and friends.
Hence, they say, more counselors are needed.
Some SRO opponents also echo the same complaints that have been at the heart of weeks of nationwide protests against police treatment of people and communities of color.
They say uniformed police on campuses constitute an oppressive presence and that they focus on disciplining students more than anything else.
Until late May, Tempe had planned to spend $450,000 to fund the positions after losing state grants that paid for them.
The state has only a limited amount of money for SROs and competition among Arizona’s 926 public high schools for the funds has been fierce.
It became even more competitive when the Legislature last year broadened the use of those grants to include social workers, counselors and psychologists.
Tempe’s plan hit a major roadblock two weeks ago when Garcia and Barraza, citing more the 350 emails opposing the SROs, moved to immediately redirect the money.
Those emails came amid nationwide protests against police officers’ treatment of people of color, particularly blacks. The protests were sparked by the slaying of a black man in Minneapolis police custody and, locally, by a Department of Public Safety officer’s fatal shooting of a black man during a traffic stop.
Los Angeles last week became the most recent city to announce it would phase out police officers in schools and similar moves have been undertaken or discussed in dozens of cities nationwide.
The board heeded Superintendent Dr. Kevin Mendivil’s request that his staff have some time to gather data and talk to police so that the board could have a fuller discussion of the issue.
But all the board members and Mendivil said they understood the SRO opponents’ positions but that the issue required a fuller discussion as well as input from the community.
During the Governing Board’s meeting last week, Mendivil said, “I want to be able to provide information to you and to share with you the role of the SRO, talk about the role in this district – in most districts – of the counselor because they’re more academic counselors.”
He also said he wanted to present information about social workers now in the district, who he said work primarily with special education students.
“You need to see a comprehensive picture of that,” Mendivil continued, adding he also wanted to detail the district’s partnership with Tempe’s Care Seven, a 24-7 crisis intervention and victim assistance program that provides counseling services and social-emotional support for youth, veterans and crime victims.
“My goal is to bring you information and then we can make the wisest and best decisions,” he told the board.
“There’s a limited dollar amount,” he continued, adding he is trying to “gain additional money from both the City of Tempe and City of Phoenix.
“That may take a while but we’re pretty confident we’re going to get something so that will bring additional resources to maybe provide opportunities to do maybe a broader way of approaching support for our students that may include SROs.”