PUHSD students protest school resource officers at district meeting

Maria Gomez, 16, waits to address the Phoenix Union High School District board at a meeting March 1, 2018. (Nicole Neri/DD)

Students called for Phoenix Union High School District to remove school resource officers from its schools Thursday during the district’s governing board meeting.

Students at the meeting said having a police officer at their high school made them feel more unsafe than protected. They were also concerned about deportations and the presence of guns on school grounds.

“It makes me feel like a criminal,” said Chrisalma Enriquez, a sophomore at South Mountain High School. “They say that school should be a safe place, but if there’s an officer there, it makes me feel like there’s bound to be danger because why else would they be there? I feel like it’s more of a prison when I see a police officer there.”

Nearly all of Phoenix Union’s schools have police officers, called school resource officers (SROs), on campus through contracts with the Phoenix Police Department. The officers are primarily at schools to help with threat assessment, coordinate with law enforcement and run lockdown drills said a spokesperson for the district.

“They have the ability to get first responders to our schools as soon as possible if there is a major incident,” said Craig Pletenik, the district spokesperson. “An SRO is the city of Phoenix police, so it makes the relationship that much tighter with law enforcement.”

In the aftermath of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, there has been national debate about gun control, with some calling for an increased police presence at schools. President Donald Trump suggested arming teachers as extra protection against school shooters.

Pletenik said the district does not want to arm teachers and believed schools should not be increasing the amount of guns on campus.

“We think its a bad idea,” Pletenik said in an interview prior to the meeting. “It’s tough enough to be a teacher. And it’s tough enough to find teachers these days. The last thing we need is to add another responsibility to teachers… We don’t need more guns on campus, we need fewer guns on campus.”

Students at the meeting, however, felt that one armed police officer on campus was already too many.

Ezella Aros, 16, speaks against the presence of Student Resource Officers in schools at a Phoenix Union High School District board meeting March 1, 2018. (Nicole Neri/DD)

“If you don’t want guns on campus then why have an armed cop?” Enriquez asked the governing board. “Just because they have weapons doesn’t mean they make us safe.”

More harm than good

Puente Human Rights Movement was also present at the meeting and helped organize Thursday’s rally through their Cops Outta Campus campaign.

Leidy Robledo, a youth organizer for Puente Human Rights Movement, said police on school campuses can lead to students being confronted for bad behavior that’s not actually illegal.

“There is no need for a police officer on campus,” she said. “What tends to happen is that officers are used for disciplinary things and not issues that have to do with illegal stuff.”

Robledo and several students also had concerns about racial profiling and the possibility of officers deporting undocumented students.

“Any solution that gives more power to criminalize is not acceptable because we know at the end of the day that the ones that are going to get hit—that it’s going to get implemented against—is the youth of color,” Robledo said.

Maria Gomez, a sophomore at South Mountain High School, spoke to the board and cited an incident in Texas where a student was arrested by an SRO and subsequently detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Don’t let this happen to your students, especially don’t let this happen to me,” she said. “End the contract with Phoenix police.”

Enriquez also echoed Gomez’s concerns and said she felt watched at school by the school resource officer.

“Imagine being watched by someone who can take away everything you fight for and that you love, not only in schools but outside them too,” Enriquez said. “We are youth in need of education, not prisoners in need of surveillance.”

Joseeduardo Ramos joins in a chant of “Undocumented, unafraid,” after walking out of a Phoenix Union High School District board meeting March 1, 2018. (Nicole Neri/DD)

Recent studies have shown minority students are more likely to be arrested or referred to police by a school resource officer than their white peers.

According to a 2013-14 Education Week analysis of federal data, in Arizona Hispanic students make up 44 percent of the student population and account for 36 percent of school arrests. Native American students make up about five percent of the population but account for 23 percent of school arrests.

Pletenik, however, said officers are on campus for safety, not to enforce laws or deport students.

“Our school resource officers are not out to arrest kids on campus,” Pletenik said. “Our SROs are certainly not in the business of enforcing immigration laws, and that’s one area where I know some of these activists have pointed to.”

Phoenix Union did not have any arrests during the 2013-14 school year according to the above Education Week analysis.

Safe Schools

Pletenik said he believes the majority of students and parents in the district think the school resource officers are a safe option.

“The number one priority for our parents is to have safe schools,” he said. “I think that goes for staff too, the more secure they can be, the more trained they can be operating in emergency situations, the better off we’re going to be.”

But Robledo said she attributes this belief to misinformation and a “lack of transparency” when it comes to data about their officers from the district.

“We’ve used the pain and suffering of people to expand the SRO program,” she said. “When you scare parents and you tell them the only solution is a cop, they’re going to think the only solution is a cop.”

Fewer cops, more teachers

The students and Robledo also mentioned money while voicing their concerns. As they left the board meeting, students chanted, “We want books, pencils and erasers, not guns, handcuffs and tasers.” They also directly called out the district’s superintendent Chad Gestson when shouting “Hey! Hey Chad, what side are you on? Are you funding the students or funding the cops?”

Maria Gomez, 16, takes a turn leading celebration and protest chants after walking out of a Phoenix Union High School District board meeting March 1, 2018. (Nicole Neri/DD)

“With the money you pay SROs you can hire 30 more teachers,” said Milagros Renteria, a sophomore at South Mountain High School while addressing the board. “I go to school to get an education, and you’re not investing in my education the right way.”

Robledo also believed Phoenix Union was not spending its money wisely and said the school district should be spending the money it invests in the school resource officers into other less intrusive school discipline solutions.

“The reason why we have armed officers in our schools is because it’s the only funded solution,” said Robledo. “No other solution was funded the way cops was. We don’t have mass grants for counselors. We don’t have mass grants for de-escalation professionals. We don’t have grants for that type of support.”

Renteria and other students said they were going to continue voicing their concerns until change happens and Phoenix Union removes school resource officer from its campuses.

“I just want to send out the message that we’re not going to stay quiet anymore, and that we’ve been silenced for a long time and that’s over,” Renteria said. “We have a voice and we’re going to use it.”

The student speakers and demonstrators hug and talk after walking out of a Phoenix Union High School District board meeting while chanting specifically at superintendent Chad Gestson March 1, 2018. “My hands were shaking when I went up there,” says one of the student speakers. (Nicole Neri/DD)

Contact the reporter at Leah.Soto@asu.edu.