For a few years in Oakdale, school resource officers (SROs) were as much a part of campus life as hall passes and cafeteria food.
In 2005, former police chief Gary Hampton and the Oakdale Joint Unified School District embarked on a joint venture between the police department and district facilitated by a special grant to employ two SROs, one for the high school and one that would travel between the junior high school and the various elementary schools.
They taught. They policed. They provided visible security for students – and adults – on school grounds.
But a mere five years later, because of budget shortfalls, neither entity could shoulder the load of the program any longer that saw OJUSD paying $85,000 toward the then-$205,000 program. In an economic decision that saw savings over safety, then-Police Chief Marty West made the decision to cut SROs from the department.
An April, 2010 Leader article quotes West at the time stating, “It’s a matter of economics. We’d really like to bring the program back but we just can’t afford to.”
Now, with a recent Oakdale High School summer school stabbing that was gang-related, a social media firestorm of outrage by parents have expressed concern that if an SRO was assigned to the campus, gathering gang information in the schools and interacting with teens, the most vulnerable age group, perhaps these types of incidents would’ve been diffused before they happened.
Many have asked if it’s not time to consider bringing back the cop on campus.
“Without a combined funding effort, the cost of a police officer for the school district to finance on its own would cause the sacrifice of base educational programs,” said Larry Mendonca, Assistant Superintendent of Pupil Services and Facilities for the Oakdale Joint Unified School District.
Oakdale Police Chief Lester Jenkins said he has had conversations with city leaders recently about the possibility of reinstituting the officer at the high school.
“This isn’t a cause and effect,” Jenkins said. “There was something under way before last week’s stabbing.”
Jenkins credited Councilman Tom Dunlop with getting the process moving.
Along with the benefit of police presence being readily available when needed, resource officers help out their respective departments by eliminating the necessity of calling an officer off the streets and into the school when incidents occur.
Though enhancing security and enforcing the law are top priority duties of school resource officers, the position carries with it several other responsibilities. Student concerns with bullying, problems at home, social media, drug addiction concerns and a myriad of other situations are often brought to the officers’ attention. If the matter deems law enforcement attention, the officer will handle it. If not, direct referrals to guidance counselors and administrators could then be made.
Mendonca said that to combat the lack of an SRO, OJUSD provides ongoing training on school safety and programs to train that focus on the reduction of bullying and intimidation.
“In March, we arranged for a combined effort of an Oakdale police officer and a county sheriff to provide an extensive update on the status of gang activity in town, as well as neighboring communities, to all administrators in the district,” Mendonca said. “Students who initially display gang affiliated dress or conduct are provided student and parent education with school administration and police.”
Mendonca said since the cancellation of the SRO program, the district has utilized those funds earmarked for the SRO to employ additional campus supervisors at Oakdale High School and Oakdale Junior High School.
“We have also updated and increased radio communications and video surveillance systems which are both now tied directly to the Oakdale Police,” Mendonca said, adding that it was done to “enhance communications for an immediate response by police should it be needed.”
With off-campus intruders being as much, if not more, of a threat than those attending school, most schools without any law enforcement presence on campus must then rely on security cameras, gates and locked doors as a first-line defense against something as rare but becoming more common as an active shooter bent on harming students or staff.
Additionally, should an issue occur after-hours and/or off-campus, officials need to realize that the next likely gathering place for participating adversaries would be at the school and having an officer at the school, sometimes with advance knowledge, would likely diffuse any additional uproar from taking place.
The SRO with his mere presence and patrol car visibly parked at the school is a deterrent to many by itself.
“In light of this latest, very unusual incident, the district will again assess the conditions and consider what options may be prudent, including the possibility of looking at ways to bring back a School Resource Officer,” Mendonca said.
At the Monday, June 15, Oakdale City Council meeting City Manager Bryan Whitemyer had a school resource officer budgeted for the next school year and confirmed the city was having conversations with the district.
“If it was approved right now, we still couldn’t staff it,” Whitemyer said, adding officers still need to be hired and trained. “It’s our hope they could help with 50 percent of the costs.”