A plan to study the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s School Resource Deputy program was met with skepticism and questions from local school officials this week, after the LASD Civilian Oversight Commission announced a pair of public hearings on the topic.
The hearings, according to an official with the oversight group, will be held twice virtually, with a goal of giving everyone a chance to weigh in on the role law enforcement has on campuses throughout the county.
“We’re studying the program from different angles and we’re partnering up with some county partners and we’re seeking community input and also from school districts,” said Eric Montalban-Lara, a senior paralegal for the commission. “So, we want to get everyone involved in this; we’d like to get the feedback from (the public).”
It’s going to be a two-part discussion, with the first scheduled for 9 a.m. July 27, and the second for 9 a.m. Aug. 3. The discussions are expected to start with a presentation from the panels and then allow attendees to ask questions, Montalban-Lara said. The commission’s website indicates it will be taking comments until Aug. 9.
The panelists have not yet been announced, but more information will be available at the commission’s website: coc.lacounty.gov.
While the commission’s website doesn’t state it’s looking to reduce the role of law enforcement on campus, that was the previous tone of the discussion before the county Board of Supervisors. Two supervisors, Sheila Keuhl and Holly Mitchell, both stated that should be a goal in June 2021.
Several members of the William S. Hart District Union High School District’s governing board, which likely would be the local district most impacted by any changes to school deputy contracts, said they didn’t have the same challenges or concerns with law enforcement as other areas, and that the district’s “unique history” made the area’s situation slightly different.
The Hart district has seven school resource deputies and one sergeant who oversees them to cover 17 physical junior high and high school campuses, according to a district official, as well Golden Oak Adult School.
There’s also a chief social worker for the district, Ira Rounsaville, who was not immediately available Thursday for comment.
“It’s just different in Santa Clarita and it’s different in the Hart district,” said Cherise Moore, a member of the governing board who also mentioned that her father worked in law enforcement.
“We haven’t had a need to re-evaluate it because of our unique circumstances and history,” she added, referring to the 2019 school shooting at Saugus High School and the positive relationships that the district’s campuses have with their school resource deputies.
She acknowledged a California School Board Association report released recently that questioned whether school resource officers could prevent campus shootings, but she said because of the Hart district’s past, the deputies are appreciated.
Board member Linda Storli, who taught at Canyon High School before joining the governing board, said she has valued the presence that real law enforcement officers bring to campuses for years.
In addition to the legitimacy the badge brings, she said, having deputies on campus allows students to make contacts and relationships with officers that are positive and long-lasting, as opposed to having the first encounter be in some type of enforcement situation.
“And yes, if the funds get cut,” she added, “I will certainly hear us looking for ways to pay for real law enforcement officers.”
Board member Joe Messina, who also supported the school deputy program, said each community is different, and the county needs to realize that when it tries to set blanket policies for communities as diverse as Burbank, East Los Angeles and Santa Clarita, for example.
That’s why it’s important for local districts to retain their decision-making ability on important matters from campus safety to curriculum, he said.
“They want to decide what we can have in our curriculum, in our libraries, everywhere else, why even bother with us,” he asked rhetorically. “We should have local control.”
Fifth District L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents the Santa Clarita Valley, urged residents to participate in the discussion and submit comments.
“I encourage the community at large to participate in this survey,” she wrote in an email Thursday. “There are many perspectives about how school resource deputies can best serve educational campuses, faculty and youth. We need insightful and community-informed perspectives embedded in the Civilian Oversight Commission’s study.”
The recent discussion follows a county study requested in June 2022 and relayed to the Board of Supervisors from the Office of Inspector General in April.
The study cited several concerns after looking at more than 15,000 calls logged in a year that involved two police codes, for criminal and noncriminal campus incidents. The study also classified the responses as looking at Lancaster schools and schools outside Lancaster, which included the Hart district.
The report stated: “Significant inaccuracies” were found in the LASD’s data-entry system for how calls were classified or originated, with reclassification occurring at a rate of over 19%; “in the schools outside of Lancaster, SRDs contacted Black and Hispanic students more than any other racial group. Moreover, Black and Hispanic students were contacted at a rate disproportionately higher in comparison to their respective percentage of school enrollment.” There were only two instances out of a documented 812 school contacts in which SRDs indicated they referred a student to a diversion program.
It’s not clear exactly how the data was evaluated, as the report only noted four deputies and seven campuses for the Hart district. A request to speak with a member of the oversight commission and a call to commission member Patti Giggans were not immediately returned Thursday.
There’s also been a community campaign renewed by activists earlier this year that took aim at the Los Angeles School Police Department.
When the Board of Supervisors previously attempted to reduce the role of law enforcement officers, or LEOs, on campus, local districts pushed back and the board agreed to study the matter in June 2021. That discussion also resulted in the board taking control of the negotiations for LASD contracts from the agency, so the county now negotiates directly with the school district — which Barger opposed.
A representative of the deputies’ union, Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, or ALADS, said deputies want to have the relationships with the communities they serve, which are diverse. Removing them from school campuses doesn’t help build that trust.
“From our standpoint, we would like our deputies to really be embedded in this way, understand the community issues that are unique to each neighborhood and help be a part of the solution,” the representative said, “and you can’t be a part of the solution if you’re not a part of the conversation.”
You can register for the conference at bit.ly/SchoolDeputyDiscussion.