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Palo Alto police, school district review policies for school resource officers

Incident highlights need for clarity around school-based officers' presence on campuses

Palo Alto police and school officials are looking to revise their procedures for police officers' conduct on campuses in the wake of a Jordan Middle School incident involving a student.

The Aug. 19 encounter, which Superintendent Max McGee called a "serious mistake" and Jordan Principal Tom Jacoubowsky said was "very concerning," involved two school resource officers -- Palo Alto Police Department officers on special assignment who predominantly serve the district's high schools, but sometimes the middle schools.

On the second day of school, the two officers arrived at Jordan to "mediate a dispute" among three students, one of whom was afraid of another and did not want to go to school as a result, according to police spokesman Lt. Zach Perron. They checked this student into the attendance office, talking with front-office staff but no administrators, and then proceeded to call one of the other students out of class. The situation between that student and one of the officers escalated, resulting in the boy fleeing and the officer threatening to arrest him if he didn't stop, according to school and police officials.

The incident, school and police officials told the Weekly, brought to light a need for the police department and school district to work together to develop clear, written protocols around school resource officers' presence on school campuses and to better communicate those procedures.

"(Officers) need to state their reason for being on campus so we can work together and understand what the situation is and what everybody's role is," Jacoubowsky said. "In this situation, that did not happen. There was no checking in, and for me, that was very concerning."

McGee said notification of school staff by the officers is of paramount importance.

"By and large, unless there is an emergency -- and I mean emergency -- requiring immediate police presence, the school resource officers need to check in for why they're there, what they'll be doing, any interviews with students. We intend to have an administrator or designated adult available unless it interferes with a police investigation" and it did not in this instance, McGee said.

Police department policy currently states that school resource officers are required to check in when they arrive at any school, Perron said. McGee said he has been working with Police Chief Dennis Burns to clarify and further specify that policy to include an expectation that officers check in directly with school administrators to let them know their purpose for being at the school.

Perron said that in this instance, officers did check in with some staff, but "didn't meet the principal's expectation of speaking with him directly," noting that the incident happened on the second day of school with a new administration.

McGee said he would also like to include language around having an administrator present when officers meet with students. A school board policy on "questioning and apprehension by law enforcement" does state that the "principal or designee whenever practicable should be present during the interview as an observer unless the student or officer objects" and that the "principal or designee shall accommodate the interview in a way that causes the least possible disruption for the student and school and provides the student appropriate privacy."

Burns said the police department completed an "informal fact-finding" investigation of the incident. He will be meeting with McGee and school principals to identify any policy areas that could be more clear, he said Thursday.

"I think it's mostly focused on clear direction, ensuring that the school district and our school resource officers ... have a firm understanding of what we're going to be doing when we're on campus and what they can expect when we are on campus," he said. Policy should "ensure that they're aware, and if they want to escort us or be present, that they have that opportunity."

Burns said he will also be discussing with school leadership some potential policy changes around documentation of school resource officers' interactions with students, such as mediations. He said as the current policy stands, there is no requirement to document student mediations.

"It may ultimately end up in our policy that our role in mediations -- is that something that the school district wants us to take the lead on or are we more in the background?" Burns said. "That's more a philosophy and it might make it into a policy, but it may just remain our working procedure."

Jacoubowsky, who is new to Jordan but comes to the school with more than a decade as an administrator at Gunn High School, said that in all of his previous interactions with school resource officers at the high school level, they checked in and communicated the purpose of their visit to school administrators.

Palo Alto's school resource officers serve a variety of roles at the schools, including mediating conflicts between students, handling truancy issues, leading emergency preparedness trainings, providing student education and responding to emergencies. Perron said their goal is to "always handle things at the lowest possible level."

Both McGee and Jacoubowsky described school resource officers as valuable educational resources. In May, the two officers also received Crisis Intervention Team Officer of the Year awards from the Santa Clara County Behavioral Health Board and a "Continuing Service Award" from the Palo Alto Council of PTAs.

The officers are also required by their contract to be present on campuses during school hours and interact with students.

"The SRO (school resource officer) shall be proactive in policing on school campuses; work with school Campus Security Officers; work with school administrators regarding school happenings; interact with kids of all campuses during brunch, lunch, free play, etc.; attend after-suspension, school intake hearings; and assist with First Aid," the contract reads.

"I do feel in many ways, the great thing about school resource officers is they get to know the schools very well," Jacoubowsky said. "At the same time, we still need practices and protocols, no matter how well they know the school."

The school resource officers also run the Parent Project, a 12-week program for "parents with strong-willed or at-risk teens," a description on the City of Palo Alto website reads. During this program, the officers routinely give out their phone numbers and "encourage parents to contact them if they are having issues with their kids," Perron said.

"It's not unusual at all for them to take calls at all hours of the day and night from either participants in the program or past participants in the program who say, 'Hey, I'm having another issue ... what do you suggest?'"

Palo Alto police officers who want to work as school resource officers have to go through a selection process, which includes a written application and interview process, Perron said. A school district representative sits on the interview committee. Officers can serve a minimum of one year or a maximum of three years on this specialty assignment, Perron said. Their official evaluations fall under the purview of the police department, though McGee said last year he sent a note to the department "praising them for their work."

They also go through extensive training, Perron said, including a 40-hour "basic" school resource officer school; "advanced" school resource officer school; Parent Project facilitator training, which includes education around juvenile behavior and child development; child-abuse investigation school; missing or abducted child training and crisis-intervention training.

The school resource officers also provide juvenile-specific training to new police officers, according to their contract.

For some parents, the Jordan incident called into question the level of familiarity with and access to students and school sites that school resource officers have, particularly at the middle school level.

Sara Woodham, the parent of two Jordan students, described the incident as "appalling" and "inappropriate."

"All of us -- parents, teachers, staff, administration, police -- need to have a clear understanding about the different levels (of) the use of police on campus," she said. "Speaking for this specific incident, I had no idea you could ask a policeman to take your child to school. You do it once ... they sort of became like surrogate (school) staff in a way. That's really where the line just got way too blurry." Woodham questioned how officers could engage directly with students "without administrative or parental permission."

"That is the business of protocols and training," she said.

Woodham also expressed concern over the presence of armed police on middle school campuses, short of an emergency.

Police Chief Burns met with Woodham and other concerned parents to discuss the issue. Beyond protocols and accountability, Woodham also expressed to him the importance of talking with parents to understand the effect of such interactions on students, particularly students of color, she said. The incident, which involved an African-American student, ignited some tensions within the parent community about how "police interacting with students at school registers to children of different races, ethnicities, backgrounds and needs," Woodham said.

Woodham and Kim Bomar, co-chairs of Parent Advocates for Student Success (PASS), wrote to McGee and several school board members on Aug. 21 to voice their concern.

"It is apparent that there were many breaches of procedure (and basic common sense) involving the conduct of the police officers involved," they wrote. "Our families entrust our children to you, and armed police acting outside of strict protocols is a potential tragedy waiting to happen.

"We urge you to follow up with the local police authorities to ensure that there are clear protocols around if and when armed police are allowed on campus, their ability to communicate directly with students, and oversight and disciplinary procedures when breaches occur."

They also urged McGee to expedite the hiring of a district-level equity director – the first recommendation of the superintendent's minority achievement and talent development committee – "who would not only work to foster a culture of equity in the district, but would be accountable for addressing and preventing disturbing problems like this one."

A full job description and application for this position was approved by the school board and posted last month.

Woodham said she's optimistic that more clearly defined protocols will produce greater accountability and transparency around police interactions with students and staff.

"I look forward to seeing what shifts in protocols they do come up with," she said. "Removing the opportunity for this to happen is, of course, paramount."

McGee wrote in his Aug. 28 "Weekly" that he will be sending a message to the community soon "regarding the importance of identity safety for every student" and to communicate revised procedures for school resource officers.

McGee said one of his first meetings when he arrived at the district last year was, in fact, with the school resource officers to meet them and discuss their role. He plans to have the officers do the same with both new and longtime administrators, including a meeting with the district's K-12 leadership team.

"Although we have contracts for the school resource officers, the protocols around their presence on campus needs to again just be refreshed and rewritten and redistributed," McGee said in an interview. "Everybody needs to be more up to speed."

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8 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 3, 2015 at 11:28 am

So what happened? There is nothing in this article justifying reading it to its conclusion.

38 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 3, 2015 at 12:18 pm

As the parent of a child with truancy and behavioral issues, I cannot say enough good things about the SROs, particularly DuJuan Green, and Parents Project. He has gotten our child to attend school when we have not been able to do so, has attended our child's IEP meetings, and has been very encouraging and supporting to us as parents.

16 people like this
Posted by Responsibility
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 3, 2015 at 1:14 pm

Seems Jordan's office staff needs training too if they spoke to the on-campus officers but did not alert school administrators of their presence or purpose for being there.

20 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 3, 2015 at 1:24 pm

The good news is there are people looking out for the best interest of our students...and when something doesn't quite work the right way, people are looking at it and looking to fix and make a positive change...without finger pointing and unnecessary hysterics. Cooler heads will always prevail.

11 people like this
Posted by No more Skellytons
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 3, 2015 at 4:34 pm

It's great to see the district admitting that this was a mistake and promising to fix it. So refreshing [portion removed.]

As to the substance, there is no justification for armed police officers patroling a middle school in Palo Alto California. It's totally intimidating and unnecessary. It should be stopped.

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 3, 2015 at 4:59 pm

This article provides more questions than it does answers.

How often do the police get called to any of our schools? Do they get called by staff, administrators or students? Do they come armed? Do they come onto campus with sirens blaring? Can they expect to call students out of class unless they are suspected of being involved in a crime? Are there other questions we should be asking?

47 people like this
Posted by Linda
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 3, 2015 at 8:38 pm

I don't have all the facts on this case BUT I do know how lucky we are to have School Resource Officers who care, are compassionate, respond to our calls immediately, are available all hours of the night and who have saved a number of our children's lives. Thanks PAPD and especially our Resource Officers for all you do to keep all our children safe.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of East Palo Alto

on Sep 3, 2015 at 11:38 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

19 people like this
Posted by If Only
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 4, 2015 at 12:16 pm

I only wish this had been done sooner in order to save my son when he was attending Jordan. He was bullied and on three occasions beaten by one kid in particular and that kid's friends ( the bully is now in a state prison).

The beatings, which would have been interceded by the SROs, caused sinus scarring for which, years later, he had to have painful surgeries. He has also suffered from emotional scarring from his three traumatic years at Jordan--which the worst school in PAUSD.

36 people like this
Posted by PAUSD Staff
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Sep 4, 2015 at 10:07 pm

If it weren't for the SRO's, who knows how many more suicides there would have bee? Just this week a young man, intent on taking his life, was pulled from the train tracks by a friend. Officer Green (SRO) compassionately interviewed him and got him the help that he needed at Stanford Hospital. This scenario has played out COUNTLESS times. I know. As PAUSD staff, I have borne witness to it many of these times.

I wish that PAUSD had done its research before pointing fingers. I also wish that this news outlet had done the same. There are several pieces missing from this story such as the reason for the intervention, the behavior of the young man in question, and the race of the officer in question... Not to mention what really happened in the office and how many administrator knew that the police were there. I personally saw many of them talking to him before he ever intervened with the students.

But given that all of this is missing, let's just focus on what we have. Did the officer check in with administrators upon arrival to campus and before talking to students? Yes. Did he come on campus to perform a necessary and routine duty (mediation)? Yes. Did it unexpectedly escalate due to to the fact that the student stood in the officer's face yelling expletives? Yes.

Do the PAUSD policies and procedures (in general, and specific to police involvement) need to be tightened up. Yes. We PAUSD staff welcome this, as do the amazing officers at PAPD. But at the end of the day our SRO's come on to our campuses to save lives and to keep the peace. Our community would be lost without this vital service.

3 people like this
Posted by teacher
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 4, 2015 at 11:52 pm

So the SRO lost it because the kid yelled expletives? Wow.

19 people like this
Posted by Karen
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 5, 2015 at 12:25 pm

I also cannot say enough good things about the SROs, Detectives Green and Lee. There are some details missing from this story, which is probably necessary to protect the identity of the minors, so we should not jump to conclusions that the SROs acted inappropriately. [Portion removed.] And it seems understandable that the student felt threatened since the other student, according to this story, seemed to have no respect even for the police officers questioning him/her.

I am very appreciative to have Detectives Green and Lee at our schools. Having had firsthand experience with them, I only know them to be professional, compassionate, and to work day and night to protect our children.

6 people like this
Posted by Above and beyond
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 5, 2015 at 2:01 pm

[Post removed.]

1 person likes this
Posted by Above and beyond
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 5, 2015 at 8:05 pm

@If only,
If my post above seemed cryptic, I'm sorry. I probably should have clarified that I blame neither the young man nor the police. I don't think the article said enough, and knowing what our experience has been in the district, I doubt it could. I am grateful for the police but also hope they realize that a big school district is made up of all kinds of people and not all of them always put the best interests of the students or families first.

15 people like this
Posted by Tim
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 5, 2015 at 8:49 pm

I have interacted with SROs from PAPD and have the highest praise for them. Officer Green is one the most kind, compassionate, funny, and professional people I have ever met. [Portion removed.]

3 people like this
Posted by Above and beyond
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 5, 2015 at 11:10 pm

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Police - School Resource Officer
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Nov 2, 2016 at 8:03 pm

Police - School Resource Officer is a registered user.

Was the School Resource Officer in this article involved in the Jordan incident?

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