Five years ago former police chief Gary Hampton and Oakdale Unified School District embarked on a joint venture between the police department and the local schools facilitated by a special grant to employ two School Resource Officers (SRO), one for the high school and one that would rove between the junior high and the various elementary schools. It was around this same time that the DARE, Drug Abuse and Resistance Education, program was axed in favor of the SRO program.
In a story that ran in the July 20, 2005 issue of The Oakdale Leader, regarding the decision, it stated:
The impetus behind the change stems from the school district’s belief that a program sanctioned by the State Board of Education and backed by statistical analysis was a better use of district funds in the assault against drug and alcohol abuse at the school level.
Today, there is no DARE and the SRO program has also fallen victim to the cut of the budgetary ax.
The long and short of it being, neither entity could shoulder the load of the SRO program any longer. According to the agreement between the two, the district contributed approximately $85,000 toward the $205,000 program’s price tag, which when it was originally proposed represented a 44/56 percent cost split between the school district and police department.
“It’s a matter of economics,” stated Oakdale Police Chief Marty West. “We’d really like to bring the program back but we just can’t afford to.”
In light of the recent events at Oakdale High where an after school fight between two female students caught on cell phone video tape ignited a firestorm of outrage, parents have expressed concern on various blogs and social networking sites that if the SRO program hadn’t been cut, perhaps these types of incidents would’ve been defused before they happened.
In comparing the call volume generated from the high school to the police department, it was determined that while the volume was without significant change (In the 2008-09 school year there were 50 incidents while in 2009-10 there were 52) the main difference appeared to be that the calls changed from being proactive to reactive.
For example, in the last year that SRO Max Messina was assigned to the high school, Messina initiated 25 out of the 50 total calls originating from the campus. The calls ranged from reporting gang activity to catching trespassers who didn’t belong on the school campus to even more serious incidents such as assault.
However, according to Oakdale Unified School District Superintendent Fred Rich, while the calls are no longer being initiated by a police officer on campus, there is still conflict resolution going on and a record is being kept in the students’ discipline file.
“It’s not on the police blotter but conflict resolution is still taking place,” Rich said.
Having an on-campus uniformed presence managed to defuse incidents before they happened, or in some cases the SRO would educate and counsel the students on appropriate school behavior or attire before it became a problem.
Police spokesperson Sgt. Michael Eggener agreed, saying, “There has been calls where Max (Messina) heard about fights and we would saturate the area with patrol…having a uniformed officer on campus is a deterrent to all kinds of incidents.”
Which, according to the previous Leader article was exactly the point of the enhanced SRO program.
While in the past the SRO has operated primarily on a police level, reacting to calls that are disruptive in nature or criminal, the new perimeters of the SRO will include mentorship, personal interaction with the students, and sessions held in class on various topics such as safety training and diffusing a difficult situation peacefully.
Rich said administrators knew that the elimination of the SRO program would have an impact on the campus, however, steps were taken to mitigate that impact.
For the price of one SRO, the school district was able to hire four campus monitors, (three for the high school, one for the junior high), which seemed to be the best solution given their resources.
In addition, the high school campus has four site administrators who help keep an eye out for trouble as well as campus cameras that were recently installed.
But even as attempts have been made to lessen the impact of the program cut, Rich acknowledged that administrators knew they were losing something beneficial.
“There’s no question if the money had not been cut we wouldn’t have cut the program,” Rich said. “We didn’t kill the program because it wasn’t good. Financially, we couldn’t afford it.”
And while the police department and the district have kept their eyes open for another grant opportunity that may enable them to reinstate the SRO program, the money on the state and federal level for education has slowed to a trickle.
“We’ve looked but haven’t found any grants available. There’s just no new funding from the Feds or the state in education,” Rich said.