For four hours June 24, the Tempe Union Governing Board heard adult speaker after adult speaker discuss the role of school resource officers in advance of a vote – possibly today, July 1 – on a move that would eliminate those positions at four campuses, including Mountain Pointe and Desert Vista.
But it was the lone student voice – from rising Mountain Pointe senior Christian Nunez – that drew accolades as he talked about his experience as a young Black man.
Taking note of the nationwide protests triggered by the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis police custody, Christian criticized the move to take the $450,000 currently allocated for the SRO positions and spend it on counselors instead.
While several major cities are eliminating their SRO positions, Christian told the board there is a need to address issues of racism and racist behavior by police in communities, noting, “To properly address the feelings that students have regarding law enforcement extends far beyond the role of an SRO.”
“An SRO is not the reason that George Floyd died,” he said. “An SRO is not the reason that certain students are profiled as they leave the school by other people regardless if it’s an officer or not.
“I think that for us to entertain this conversation is for us to do a disservice to what really needs to be said. We know that the training that needs to be done, and the conversation that needs to be had, is not concerning SROs. It’s concerning the conduct of officers who need proper training and officers who need to be held accountable.”
Stressing that board members should recognize “a distinction between SROs and the general police force,” he said resource officers are people who “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.”
He said he and his fellow students have had “many more interactions” involving racial bias and mistreatment from teachers and administrators “than with any SRO” and said the board should be talking with students about that and changing the culture in schools rather than look at resource officers.
“I trust my SRO at my school and I think that for us to sit here and continue to just pour our energy into something that can be better used elsewhere, is a disservice to what really needs to be done,” said Christian, whose address drew praise from Superintendent Kevin Mendivil, board President Berdetta Hodge and several other speakers.
His school’s SRO, Officer Robert Lucero, also was among the resources officers who addressed the board.
Now entering his third year at Mountain Pointe, the 15-year veteran Tempe officer said SROs are in a unique position to help students.
“We get an opportunity to talk to them in the classroom,” Lucero said. “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.”
Other SROs and police officials echoed that.
Assistant Tempe Police Chief Sherry Burlingame said students feel comfortable enough with SROs to share concerns about troubled classmates so that the school can intervene and help that student before a tragedy occurs.
“It saddens me to think about what would happen if they weren’t there and they didn’t have those connections with the students,” Burlingame said. “When they do their home visits or they talk to a teacher that’s concerned about a student and they go talk to that student to find out that the source of really what’s bothering them and causing some of these behaviors is the fact that they don’t have the basic life means that they need to thrive, that their family is struggling financially or that they don’t have food or their air conditioning is broken.”
She said SROs in these and other situations work with school staff and the Tempe crisis-intervention team called Care 7 “so they can concentrate on the business of being a kid, being a student and go on to hopefully become a very productive member of society.”
Corona del Sol Principal Nathan Kleve delivered a statement signed by all seven Tempe Union high school principals that begged the board not to eliminate the SRO positions, noting that they were a critical part of a support system for students that includes counselors and even bus drivers. (The text of the statement appears on Page 23 of today’s edition.)
Board members Brian Garcia and Andres Barraza started the SRO controversy last month when they moved to reallocate the funds from SROs to hiring more counselors. They cited more than 300 emails they’ve received, many of which said uniformed officers on campus intimidated students, particularly students of color.
That Tempe Union even has to use district funds for the positions results from cuts in the School Safety Program grants from the state Department of Education.
Tempe Union has received those grants for more than 20 years, but the state cut the district’s funding as more schools vied for a limited amount of funding provided by the program.
Mendivil said that if funds are reallocated, he would look into additional funding from Tempe and Phoenix to keep the positions – although it is unclear whether either city will have money as they struggle with their own financial hardships brought on by plummeting revenue as a result of the pandemic. Phoenix also has historically declined to fund SROs.
A decision will likely be made tonight by the board since a reallocation is part of the 2020-21 district budget that is up for approval.
And whether speakers changed anyone’s mind is unclear. Previously, Hodge, Garcia and Barraza signaled a desire to reallocate the money.
“I know that you all have been working to have positive relationships,” Garcia told the speakers. “But at the same time I want to make sure that we acknowledge and recognize that when we’re taking a step back and we’re looking at different ways to support our students that we bring that factor in because not everyone feels safe even though we’re trying to provide the most safe environment.”
Barraza said, “I think it’s part of what the community is trying to say right now with the funding. They’re not saying ‘defunding,’ in my opinion. I believe they’re saying ‘reallocation’ – take money away from the tanks and put them into counseling services and slow down the recidivism."