Civil grand jury calls for more school resource officers

06/19/2019

On any given workday, Marin County’s school resource officer might read with a class, respond to a weapon on campus or give perspective to a troubled child. “The only thing I know is that it is going to be different from the day before. No two days are the same,” said Deputy Josie Sanguinetti, the single school resource officer for the Marin County Sheriff’s Office. “If I don’t have anything that’s of safety concern, then it’s visiting, rapport-building and just spending time with the kiddos.”

The demand for Ms. Sanguinetti—who provides safety, builds approachable relationships and enforces laws at 34 schools for 9,200 students across unincorporated Marin—means she rarely has downtime. “There’s always something to do,” she said, “so time management is a big challenge.”

A Marin County Civil Grand Jury report released late last month found that having just one school resource officer for the county is insufficient. The report calls for the sheriff’s office to assign two more full-time school resource officers.

“School resource officers promote strong collaborative relationships between schools and law enforcement that benefit the entire community,” the report states. They are “a wise investment that yields substantial benefits to students, schools, and their communities.” 

The report explains that having an approachable school resource officer “helps to deter students from committing crimes, decreases students’ fear and hostility toward police and other authorities, and encourages students to become involved in civic activities.” 

Yet officials from the Sheriff’s Office and the Marin County Office of Education argued to the 19-member jury that they can’t afford more school resource officers because funds are in short supply. But even if their budgets weren’t so tight, county officials told the jury that “more pressing needs would probably take precedence.”  

The county’s 2019-2020 budget includes no funding to support another school resource officer, whose salary starts at $80,000. Ms. Sanguinetti, who’s worked in law enforcement for 17 years, made $110,000 in 2017. Although becoming a school resource officer requires an interview process because it is a specialty position, the movement is lateral, not a promotion with a raise.

The grand jury looked at strategies for funding school resource officers, including state and federal funds, grants, and taxes; it also noted the possibility of sharing officers across schools. In municipalities like Novato and San Rafael, school resource officers are employed by the school district and the city’s police department.

The report said school boards should take the lead in identifying sustainable funding, and school districts, communities and law enforcement departments should hire grant writers to apply for grants from anti-tobacco, law enforcement and Homeland Security programs. 

The report, which requires a response from all school districts in the county, found that both law enforcement and schools themselves “made only minimal efforts to secure school resource officer funding,” despite acknowledging their myriad benefits. 

The grand jury also pointed to inconsistent training for school resource officers, who usually complete a five-day course in Sacramento. Yet not all officers have completed the training, and those that did told the jury that it didn’t adequately prepare them for handling students.

While the report mostly praises the officers, it also mentions that opponents believe their presence makes students afraid, violates privacy, leads to more arrests and may not keep schools safer. (Only two of 23 school shootings since 1999 were stopped by a school resource officer, according to an analysis by the Washington Post.)

On a positive note, the report commends the county’s shift from older to younger officers who relate better to students.

Ms. Sanguinetti’s involvement in West Marin schools ranges from enjoyable to dangerous. On May 28, for instance, while making her rounds in West Marin, she spoke to a student who had stolen from another student at Tomales High School, participated in a science experiment at Laguna Elementary School, and answered any questions kids could think to ask her at Lincoln Elementary School.

In a couple of more serious incidents, she responded to a student who threatened to shoot up Bolinas-Stinson School in December 2017, and another who brought two hunting rifles to Tomales High last September. In neither case were the students found to have violent intentions, and neither resulted in criminal charges. 

While safety is her top priority, Officer Sanguinetti tries not to criminalize kids. Her approach matches a growing movement in schools away from punitive justice and toward restorative justice, which research shows reduces repeat offenses and provides victims and offenders with less stress and more satisfaction.