As students returned to Mountain Pointe and Desert Vista high schools in March, one thing was missing – and will remain absent for the rest of the school year, just as it had been when campuses reopened for two-day-a-week classroom learning in the fall.
School resource officers have not been on either campus since the March 2020 statewide closure of schools.
And barring an unexpected windfall from an outside source, SROs won’t be at the two Ahwatukee campuses when the new school year begins in August even though they will be present at the district’s four Tempe campuses for 2021-22 as the result of a state grant.
A fifth Tempe campus that had a state Department of Education grant for an SRO is Compadre, which is being shut down at the end of this school year, its programs being moved to Marcos de Niza. It is unclear if the district can use its state grant for Compadre to hire an SRO for the Ahwatukee campuses.
The SRO debate emerged in spring 2020 as the district was grappling with the many challenges brought on by the pandemic and as nationwide protests against police brutality gave birth to a national movement to rid school campuses of uniformed officers with guns.
Echoing that latter movement, TU Governing Board President Brian Garcia moved that the district not use $450,000 the administration had set aside for SROs and instead put the money toward more counselors, social workers and other staff that could address students’ social-emotional well- being.
Garcia’s motion sparked a districtwide debate splitting parents and students on the issue.
Proponents of SROs – including all the district’s high school principals – argued that SROs are as vital to the student body’s well-being as counselors and teachers.
Mountain Pointe SRO Robert Lucero, a 15-year veteran Tempe police officer, said SROs are in a unique position to help students.
“We get an opportunity to talk to them in the classroom,” Lucero told the governing board. “We get an opportunity to talk to them during school, during lunch hour and we get to interact with them. We get to build that rapport with them…They usually don’t get an opportunity to talk to law enforcement and ask questions. I usually encourage that with the students to sit there and ask questions, whatever they want to ask.”
Students like then-senior Christian Nunez agreed, telling the board there is “a distinction between SROs and the general police force” that had been lost in the anti-police brutality protests that had been sweeping the nation at the time and that SROs “want to work with children.”
“I think that for us to pour all of our energy into SROs and the conversation of whether or not we need to have them in schools or not is a complete waste of time,” Christian said. “SROs can be the beginning foundation of fostering a healthy relationship between students and law enforcement. To properly address the feelings that students have regarding law enforcement extends much beyond the role of an SRO.”
Not all students agreed with that
In June 2020, the AZ Mirror published a letter signed by three past Desert Vista Student Body presidents and the current president that lauded the move against SROs, stating “we have witnessed firsthand both the negative impact of SROs on campus and the urgent need for more support counselors and social workers at school.”
The letter primarily dealt with students' mental and emotional needs and the reason why more counselors and counseling services were needed, but also took aim at what they called the intimidating presence of armed officers on campus.
“Walking into Desert Vista every day, the sight of an armed police officer makes students feel unsafe and nervous in a space that should be rooted in inclusion and love,” the letter said, contending a 2015 survey found “Black students in the district are 3 times more likely than their white peers to be referred to law enforcement.”
The letter recommended that rather than abolish SRO positions, that they be shared across several campuses so that more money could be spent beefing up counseling positions at Tempe Union schools.
“We students need mental health staff who are trained to notice and respond to stress and trauma,” it said. “Desert Vista has more than 3,600 students, but only one dedicated support counselor and seven academic guidance counselors. Most students we spoke to barely even came in contact with their guidance counselor until their senior year of high school. One support counselor for 3,600 students is not enough.”
Also siding with SRO opponents was city Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who told AFN in an interview that police “are always going to be a step away in our community” if their presence is needed on a campus.
“If there’s a police action needed, they’ll be there on time,” he said.
“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.”
Garcia’s motion had the support of now board Vice President Andres Barraza and then board President Berdetta Hodge. The two opponents on the board have since been replaced by recently elected Armando Montero and Sarah James.
During the board’s debate – which focused on funding for SROs at both Ahwatukee campuses as well as Corona del Sol and McClintock high schools – Superintendent Dr. Kevin Mendivil said he would seek outside funding for the SRO positions.
Though the district requested public safety grants for all its campuses, the Department of Education granted money only for the five Tempe schools for the 2021-22 school year.
District spokeswoman Megan Sterling said that she could not comment on any talks between Tempe Union and the Phoenix Police Department.
But Phoenix Police spokeswoman Sgt. Mercedes Fortune said, “If a school district does not have a grant, they would be responsible to pay for the position.”
She also said the department had sent an intergovernmental agreement to Tempe Union last June and “is awaiting their decision and signature to move forward with staffing.”
Fortune also said the department communicated with Mendivil’s office in February but so far has received no signed contract, stating, "We communicated with Tempe Union superintendent in February 2021 and as of today, we have not yet received a signed contract."
It’s unclear if the issue will come up as Tempe Union’s board begins hammering out a budget for the new school year. Since the district now has grants for the Tempe campuses, it’s likely that less than half of the original $450,000 at the heart of last year’s controversy would be needed to fund SROs at Mountain Pointe and DV.
Before the Education department approved grants for SROs at the five campuses in Tempe, Sterling last fall said, “These four positions will be funded, one way or another - it is non-negotiable.”
During the board’s discussion several months ago about Compadre’s closing, there was no mention of what might happen with that SRO position.
As far as the remainder of the present school year is concerned, Sterling said, “Phoenix PD has been a wonderful partner to date and there will be support from beat cops, etc, that are out on patrol, but there will not be dedicated SRO’s in place on campus.”
She also said that since campuses reopened in mid-March, there have been no calls for police at either Ahwatukee campus.