Fremont Unified School District to re-evaluate cops on campus

FREMONT — Amid national and local calls for defunding police departments and pulling officers from schools in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, Fremont’s school board plans to re-evaluate its longstanding program that places a city police officer at the district’s high schools.

The Fremont Unified School District currently pays nearly $770,000 annually to the city to support half the cost for the School Resource Officer program, or SRO program, which includes one officer from the Fremont Police Department assigned to each of the district’s six high schools, and a sergeant who oversees the unit.

The school board voted this week to ask the city to pay for the full cost of the officers while schools are under a distance learning model as the officers have since been reassigned and are no longer on campuses.

Board members also voted 4-1 to “reevaluate the SRO program relationship” as a whole, but it remains unclear when or how that would take place.

Board member Ann Crosbie voted against the proposal, saying she would have preferred the program be suspended for one school year, so the district would have a concrete timeline for reassessing the program.

Three dozen people called into the virtual meeting, and the majority asked the board to either suspend the program for the next school year, or scrap it altogether, and replace it with more mental health resources such as counselors and social workers.

Victoria Birbeck-Herrera, the president of the Fremont Unified District Teachers Association, said the school district should suspend the program, and ask the city to reimburse the school district for the money paid into the program since the pandemic shut schools.

“It appears that we are paying the city to arrest our children,” Birbeck-Herrera said, referencing a presentation school district staff gave to the board about the SRO program, using police data.

The presentation only included data from one full school year, 2018-19, and data from the 2019-20 school year, which was cut short by the pandemic.

In 2018-19, officers made 21 student arrests or referrals to law enforcement on campuses throughout the district.

Of those 21, a little more than half were students identified as Hispanic, 29 percent were White, 14 percent were African American, and five percent were categorized as “East Indian,” which police spokeswoman Geneva Bosques said in an interview Friday should have been identified as as “Asian Indian.”

In Fremont, a city of 233,000, Asians make up 58.4 percent of the city’s residents, which includes about 25.2 percent Asian Indian and 18.2 percent Chinese, while Hispanic or Latinx people make up 13.2 percent of the population, according to American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Black or African American people make up only 3.7 percent of the city’s residents, and some board members expressed concern about the racially skewed arrest rates.

“When you look at these kinds of numbers and you see Black and Brown kids are the ones that are mostly impacted by it, it gives you pause,” said Desrie Campbell, the school board president who identifies as an American of African descent. “Why is it that these kids are the ones that are most adversely impacted by the police officers in our communities?”

Campbell said her family has experienced “blatant discrimination” from police in Fremont, and while re-evaluating the SRO program, attention must be paid to perception and stereotypes.

Board member Dianne Jones called the disparities in arrest and referral data “alarming.”

Fremont police Capt. Fred Bobbitt said one incident can skew the numbers, and offered an example of one group of students all of one ethnicity fighting at school.

Bobbitt also emphasized that SROs are trained to listen to students, and steer them from trouble while keeping them and the staff safe.

“Our goal is not to place handcuffs on our students,” he said.

Some school board members, including Larry Sweeney and Michele Berke, also noted that high school principals have expressed support for keeping the SRO program.

“There are many, many, many, many students who were never arrested and who were never referred, but probably got a little bit of a scare from the SRO who told them if you engage in this behavior again, we will go to the next step,” Sweeney said during the meeting.

Bobbitt also shared one example in which a police officer was notified about a student who wanted to possibly harm themselves, and was able to help the student.

But Jones said if the school district had a social worker on campus, the student could have approached them, instead of a police officer.

The data also show that one of the most common things school resource officers dealt with at Fremont schools were “5150” holds, where a student is placed on psychiatric hold because they may be suffering from a mental crisis.

“I want to do it in a way that we don’t leave a void. I don’t want to just drop the SROs without having hired social workers,” she said of re-evaluating the program.

“What are the functions that, if any, we feel that can be filled by no one other than law enforcement?” Jones asked. “What are functions that can be filled by other professionals, and can we get those people in place?”