Two envelopes

The letters sent to Tempe Union High School officials demanding the reallocation of $450,000 earmarked for school resource officers at four high schools – including Desert Vista and Mountain Pointe – weren’t just related to the nationwide protests over police departments’ treatment of people of color.

The letters have provoked a study by Tempe Union officials – and a broad community debate – after Tempe Union Government Board members Andres Barraza and Brian Garcia to move on June 3 that the money be immediately reallocated to counselors and mental health officials.

That move was defeated, however, by the three other board members, who agreed to Superintendent Dr. Kevin Mendivil’s request for time to talk with police, principals and other parties in advance of a full consideration of SROs at the four schools at one of the board’s meetings in July.

In demanding the money immediately be allocated, Garcia cited some 360 letters that he and other district officials had received asking that the positions not be funded.

The SRO positions at the two Ahwatukee schools as well as Corona del Sol and McClintock, had been funded by state grants. But the state took that money away after more districts applied for the grants when the Legislature okayed their use for social workers, counselors and psychologists instead of SROs.

Up until the June 3 meeting, the district had planned to fund the positions itself, but Garcia and Barraza made impassioned pleas for funding counselor positions.

While some letters did address the issue of uniformed officers on campus, others cited a need for counselors – but just not because of mental health concerns.

For example, one Mountain Pointe alumnus wrote about the need for counselors to assist students in getting into college, lamenting “how unprepared we were for college applications.”

“We believe Mountain Pointe failed us by not having enough counselors to explain to each student their college options,” the alumnus wrote. “I was fortunate enough to play a sport in high school and that is how I made my final college decision. However, many of my friends could have attended high ranking institutions but were not given the proper resources, nor the encouragement to reach for these higher schools.

“I remember our campus resource officer and have no ill will towards him. I also have no recollection of a way in which he improved my life,” he added.

A former Mountain Pointe valedictorian echoed that theme, stating “During my time at Mountain Pointe, I learned firsthand that support counselors mean the world to the students they impact. My own counselor was instrumental in encouraging me to push myself academically and she was there to talk me through difficult decisions and help me overcome challenges along the way.”

There were concerns about mental health – as well as about what some writers felt was the intimidating presence of uniformed, armed police on campus.

Several Desert Vista graduates noted the numerous pleas for counselors made two years ago to the Governing Board by then-senior and current Arizona State University sophomore and Tempe Union board candidate Armando Montero.

“For almost two years,” one Thunder grad wrote, students and recent graduates “have expressed concern for the lack of resources our district has dedicated to mental health. This is not just due to the popularity of wanting more mental health resources among students but also the reality of the situation at hand.”

Spending the money on SROs, one letter said, would “stress discipline over learning” and said “the presence of officers only increases the anxiety of students.”

Another Desert Vista grad wrote, “We brought petitions to the district and publicly spoke at meetings but did not see real change. Instead, students and parents continue to be greeted by a police officer when they walk into the Desert Vista Office. I hope all of you have thought of the symbolism behind this fact. Students are not greeted with a school that feels safe and inclusive, but rather militaristic and threatening. For students of color, this poses an even worse reality.”

A parent wrote that counselors would “develop critical thinking skills necessary to do and be good in their communities and at school while an officer who threatens violence or incarceration will lead the children to believe they are under surveillance and need to be forcibly controlled to have good conduct.”

 One former speech and debate coach blasted the SRO at McClintock, saying that the unidentified officer once walked into a class and “calmly expressed to us why Darren Wilson was justified in murdering Michael Brown. I hope it is clear, given our environment today, just how wrong, insidious and harmful that was.”

Wilson in 2014 was a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, who fatally shot the 18-year-old African American, stating the victim was advancing at him during an encounter. The shooting sparked a wave of demonstrations, though the U.S. Justice Department cleared the officer of wrongdoing.

The writer went on to state, “TUHSD has a moral duty to immediately begin lessening police presence on all campuses.”

The letters were not just local, either.

Some graduates who have since moved out of Arizona wrote the district.

One Desert Vista grad now living in New York City said many high school students suffer anxiety that continues well after they graduate and said that alone underscored the need for more people who could address mental health.

But others combined both the need for more attention to mental health with what they termed the SROs’ “intimidating” presence.

“Like most high school students, I struggled with mental health and had few resources to cope,” one writer said. “While I did not have the opportunity to seek a counselor at school, I did periodically see our School Resource Officer roaming campus. Seeing the officer’s presence on campus never made me feel safer or protected -- it only made me feel anxious and distrusted. 

“The students who interacted with the SRO were rarely given guidance, resources, and tools to address their root problems. Usually, they were punished, scared, and reprimanded. TUHSD students deserve resources to treat the underlying causes of disruptive behavior.”

It’s likely the districts will be seeing letters supporting the SROs’ continued presence, given the reaction on social media to AFN’s report last week about the Governing Board’s June 3 meeting.

A number of posts said SROs at Mountain Pointe and Desert Vista actually help students while others suggested that school shootings remain a threat when campuses reopen.

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