A week after Tempe Union’s governing board postponed indefinitely a decision on whether to fund school resource officers at Desert Vista and Mountain Pointe high schools and two other campuses, Phoenix Union High School District announced Tuesday it will not renew its annual agreement with Phoenix officers at its middle and high school campuses.
School resource officers have come under increased scrutiny in the wake of nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd at police hands in Minneapolis, which has sparked a national dialog on institutional racism, particularly in police forces.
In announcing the decision, Superintendent Chad Gestson said now is the perfect time for action and that “more listening and more focus groups will not solve the issue or bridge the divide.”
The decision will free up $1.2 million, which the school district said will be allocated after what it called a “participatory budgeting initiative,” with $500,000 to be budgeted through a staff-led process, $500,000 for student-led process and $200,000 for parent-led process.
Phoenix Police will only provide SROs if the district pays for it.
Until this year, Tempe Union had been the beneficiary of state grants to fund its SROs, but that money disappeared after the state Department of Education redistributed the money to other districts.
The grant program, which last year was expanded to also cover social workers or counselors if the recipient so desire, has never been able to meet all the requests for funding from districts across Arizona.
Tempe Union Superintendent Kevin Mendivil has said he would explore other funding possibilities with Phoenix and Tempe, although it’s unclear where those two cash-strapped cities would get the money to pay for it.
Mendivil had budgeted $450,000 in district funds for the four campus SROs, but three board members have indicated a desire to reallocate that money for counselors.
Gestson said Phoenix Union will continue to use off-duty officers on campus.
Kevin Quinn, the president of the Arizona School Resource Officers Association, would not criticize the decision, saying he has not been able to talk with district officials on their reasoning.
But he defended the good work that officers can do. Losing those officers could be a “big blow to the schools and the community,” he said.
But advocates who have long pushed for the removal of resource officers from schools welcomed the decision, which they said “came as a surprise.”
Abia Khan, a recent graduate of North High School in central Phoenix, started a petition last mouth calling for Phoenix Union to terminate its contract for school resource officers.
Khan worked with Phoenix advocacy organizations Puente Youth and Poder Youth to achieve what she called “an amazing first step … but there’s still a long way to go.”
The district, which comprises 20 Phoenix high schools, has more than 27,000 students, nearly 82 percent of whom are Hispanic, according to its website.
“In Phoenix Union, a lot of students are undocumented or students of color, and having that police presence just makes them feel unsafe,” Khan said.
But Quinn said that he often got a different reaction from students during his 15 years as a school resource officer.
“I’ve had students who reached out to me and just basically said, ‘Hey, I wasn’t the best kid but I’ve turned my life around and wanted to thank you for what you did,’” Quinn said. “That makes it all worthwhile.”
That echoed statements made by
SROs during a four-hour Tempe Union school board hearing on the matter earlier this month.
Gestson said he anticipates there will be little-to-no need for on-campus police this fall, as Phoenix Union announced that it will begin school Aug. 3 “with full remote learning” and could continue online for weeks, if not months.
Khan said she and other advocates worry that the school district can still reinstate the officers next year.
“We’re concerned that their intentions might not be in the right place,” Khan said. “We want to make sure they make it clear that this is a long-term commitment, this is now and forever.”
Quinn said he understands how unique situations call for unique changes, but he hopes the change is not irreversible.
“I’m hoping, obviously, that everything on the campuses stays calm and that there are no issues, but kids are kids,” he said. “Once they realize there’s less security on campus, I’m hoping they don’t start to push the envelope. My biggest fear is that there’s serious criminal activity, but I’m hoping that doesn’t happen.”