The school board debated what role, if any, police should play in Berkeley high schools. File photo: Tracey Taylor

The Berkeley school district is considering what role, if any, police should play in its schools.

At a board meeting on Wednesday night, school board members debated the role of the School Resource Officer (SRO), a single officer employed by the Berkeley Police Department who is stationed at school campuses.  

Since 2019, Geoffrey Mitchell has been the district’s sole SRO. He works on the campuses of Berkeley High and Berkeley Technology Academy, the district’s continuation school, four days a week. He also tutors students on Berkeley High’s football team. 

In some ways, he is a typical police officer: He is armed and wears a uniform with a badge. He is employed by Berkeley Police Department, which pays his salary. When students break the law, he makes arrests or writes case reports documenting illegal activity. From 2018 to March 2020, the Berkeley Police Department made 21 arrests on campus and wrote 140 case reports, according to data provided by police. Out of those cases, police took four students to juvenile hall.

School resource officers differ from other cops in their emphasis on relationship-building with students. An SRO is meant to be a teacher, counselor and mentor, too. The SRO does not handle issues of school discipline. That is up to teachers, administrators, and School Safety Officers (SSOs), who handle campus security, help manage student behavior and do not carry weapons. But the lines can blur in some cases, as when an SRO is called to break up a fight. 

The reconsideration of the SRO’s role was initially sparked by protests that erupted in June over the murder of George Floyd. The protests grew into a nationwide movement to defund the police and brought increased scrutiny to police presence in schools. In June, Oakland Unified voted to disband its own police department, which had 47 officers stationed at schools throughout the district. 

A committee made up of students, administrators, parents and other community members recommended Wednesday that the district expand the role of the SRO to include more mentorship responsibilities and consider adding additional hours to the role or a second SRO. Several committee members said they had not expected to expand the SRO’s responsibilities, but came to believe that the SRO has a positive impact at Berkeley schools. 

The recommendation came as a surprise to many board members, who hoped the committee would imagine school safety without an armed police officer stationed on campus. Save Laura Babbitt, who supported the recommendations, most board members prodded the committee to further investigate alternatives to policing.

Gabe Fredman, a teacher on special assignment who supports positive school and classroom culture district-wide, said he did not expect to get behind the SRO role. But he changed his mind when he saw what a difference it can make when students have an existing relationship with an officer.

“The need to call the police will continue to be there at a large secondary school,” he said. “It was really compelling how the SRO has functioned at Berkeley High, which seems different than my experience in other school districts, where, when the police were called, they sort of came in as an invading force,” Fredman said. 

Indeed, when the committee surveyed students and staff, no teachers and fewer than 6% of students found the SRO “hostile or mistrustful of kids.” The majority of people surveyed supported the SRO position, including 72% of Black students, 73% of Latino students, 77% of Asian students, and 62% of white students. White staff members were the most critical of the SRO role, with 54% opposing the position. 

Fredman found himself separating the movement to defund police from the specific case of the SRO at Berkeley High. “We weren’t trying to reform nationwide policing. We’re not really making a political statement. We were thinking about how we ensure safety and support at Berkeley for our students,” he said. 

At the board meeting, committee members Heidi Weber, the principal at Berkeley Technology Academy, and Claudia Gonzalez, the vice principal at Berkeley High, said there are times when they have to get police involved. In those cases, having an officer who knows the community leads to more positive, productive interactions. “I don’t think we should have armed police on our campuses,” Weber said. “And yet, what else do we have in the meantime?”

But some school board members were unconvinced that school safety required a police officer stationed on campus, even if that officer said he had students’ best interests at heart. At the meeting, School Board Director Ka’Dijah Brown said that the committee failed to explore alternative “pathways for creating police-free high schools.” In July, the school board passed a resolution to re-envision public safety at Berkeley’s high schools that emphasized alternatives to policing.

The presence of police at schools increases the chances that students get ensnared in the criminal justice system, the July resolution asserted. A 2016 study found that having officers stationed at schools did increase arrests, though it also increased school safety. Such data is not available for Berkeley’s high schools. 

Other school board directors were skeptical, too. “I don’t understand … the value of having an armed officer, as a beat cop, on Berkeley High’s campus,” said School Board Director Julie Sinai. School Board Director Ana Vasudeo voiced concerns about what police presence meant for immigrant students on campus. 

Shayla Avery, a senior at Berkeley High who helped organize a series of Black Lives Matter protests in Berkeley last summer, sees removing the SRO role as part of the broader effort to defund police and divert the money to historically underfunded programs, including schools. “I stand behind defunding the police. It’s crazy and how under-funded some other aspects of the community are.” Besides, Avery said, the police station is right across the street.

But School Board Director Laura Babbitt said she found the committee’s recommendations “affirming.” If, by law, the police have to be called, Babbitt said, it’s better to have a compassionate police officer who knows students. “That’s actually what defunding the police is. It’s about creating community police officers who we know the people and respond to the humanization of the people.”

Questions remained for school board directors, who hoped to explore other alternatives to police on campus. Several wondered why the SRO needed to be armed. Lieutenant Matt McGee, who worked as an SRO for five years before Mitchell, said it’s against department policy for there to be unarmed police officers, and an armed officer can make students feel safe in the event of an emergency like a school shooting, which McGee has had students tell him. The board’s resolution pointed out that armed police make some students feel unsafe on campus.

Wednesday’s discussion is progress for the school board’s plan to “reimagine” the role of the SRO, but what comes next in the process has yet to be announced. Read the committee’s full recommendations here.

Featured file photo: Natalie Orenstein

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...