Palo Alto police and school officials are looking to revise their procedures for police officers' conduct on campuses in the wake of a Jordan Middle School incident involving a student.
The Aug. 19 encounter, which Superintendent Max McGee called a "serious mistake" and Jordan Principal Tom Jacoubowsky said was "very concerning," involved two school resource officers -- Palo Alto Police Department officers on special assignment who predominantly serve the district's high schools, but sometimes the middle schools.
On the second day of school, the two officers arrived at Jordan to "mediate a dispute" among three students, one of whom was afraid of another and did not want to go to school as a result, according to police spokesman Lt. Zach Perron. They checked this student into the attendance office, talking with front-office staff but no administrators, and then proceeded to call one of the other students out of class. The situation between that student and one of the officers escalated, resulting in the boy fleeing and the officer threatening to arrest him if he didn't stop, according to school and police officials.
The incident, school and police officials told the Weekly, brought to light a need for the police department and school district to work together to develop clear, written protocols around school resource officers' presence on school campuses and to better communicate those procedures.
"(Officers) need to state their reason for being on campus so we can work together and understand what the situation is and what everybody's role is," Jacoubowsky said. "In this situation, that did not happen. There was no checking in, and for me, that was very concerning."
McGee said notification of school staff by the officers is of paramount importance.
"By and large, unless there is an emergency -- and I mean emergency -- requiring immediate police presence, the school resource officers need to check in for why they're there, what they'll be doing, any interviews with students. We intend to have an administrator or designated adult available unless it interferes with a police investigation" and it did not in this instance, McGee said.
Police department policy currently states that school resource officers are required to check in when they arrive at any school, Perron said. McGee said he has been working with Police Chief Dennis Burns to clarify and further specify that policy to include an expectation that officers check in directly with school administrators to let them know their purpose for being at the school.
Perron said that in this instance, officers did check in with some staff, but "didn't meet the principal's expectation of speaking with him directly," noting that the incident happened on the second day of school with a new administration.
McGee said he would also like to include language around having an administrator present when officers meet with students. A school board policy on "questioning and apprehension by law enforcement" does state that the "principal or designee whenever practicable should be present during the interview as an observer unless the student or officer objects" and that the "principal or designee shall accommodate the interview in a way that causes the least possible disruption for the student and school and provides the student appropriate privacy."
Burns said the police department completed an "informal fact-finding" investigation of the incident. He will be meeting with McGee and school principals to identify any policy areas that could be more clear, he said Thursday.
"I think it's mostly focused on clear direction, ensuring that the school district and our school resource officers ... have a firm understanding of what we're going to be doing when we're on campus and what they can expect when we are on campus," he said. Policy should "ensure that they're aware, and if they want to escort us or be present, that they have that opportunity."
Burns said he will also be discussing with school leadership some potential policy changes around documentation of school resource officers' interactions with students, such as mediations. He said as the current policy stands, there is no requirement to document student mediations.
"It may ultimately end up in our policy that our role in mediations -- is that something that the school district wants us to take the lead on or are we more in the background?" Burns said. "That's more a philosophy and it might make it into a policy, but it may just remain our working procedure."
Jacoubowsky, who is new to Jordan but comes to the school with more than a decade as an administrator at Gunn High School, said that in all of his previous interactions with school resource officers at the high school level, they checked in and communicated the purpose of their visit to school administrators.
Palo Alto's school resource officers serve a variety of roles at the schools, including mediating conflicts between students, handling truancy issues, leading emergency preparedness trainings, providing student education and responding to emergencies. Perron said their goal is to "always handle things at the lowest possible level."
Both McGee and Jacoubowsky described school resource officers as valuable educational resources. In May, the two officers also received Crisis Intervention Team Officer of the Year awards from the Santa Clara County Behavioral Health Board and a "Continuing Service Award" from the Palo Alto Council of PTAs.
The officers are also required by their contract to be present on campuses during school hours and interact with students.
"The SRO (school resource officer) shall be proactive in policing on school campuses; work with school Campus Security Officers; work with school administrators regarding school happenings; interact with kids of all campuses during brunch, lunch, free play, etc.; attend after-suspension, school intake hearings; and assist with First Aid," the contract reads.
"I do feel in many ways, the great thing about school resource officers is they get to know the schools very well," Jacoubowsky said. "At the same time, we still need practices and protocols, no matter how well they know the school."
The school resource officers also run the Parent Project, a 12-week program for "parents with strong-willed or at-risk teens," a description on the City of Palo Alto website reads. During this program, the officers routinely give out their phone numbers and "encourage parents to contact them if they are having issues with their kids," Perron said.
"It's not unusual at all for them to take calls at all hours of the day and night from either participants in the program or past participants in the program who say, 'Hey, I'm having another issue ... what do you suggest?'"
Palo Alto police officers who want to work as school resource officers have to go through a selection process, which includes a written application and interview process, Perron said. A school district representative sits on the interview committee. Officers can serve a minimum of one year or a maximum of three years on this specialty assignment, Perron said. Their official evaluations fall under the purview of the police department, though McGee said last year he sent a note to the department "praising them for their work."
They also go through extensive training, Perron said, including a 40-hour "basic" school resource officer school; "advanced" school resource officer school; Parent Project facilitator training, which includes education around juvenile behavior and child development; child-abuse investigation school; missing or abducted child training and crisis-intervention training.
The school resource officers also provide juvenile-specific training to new police officers, according to their contract.
For some parents, the Jordan incident called into question the level of familiarity with and access to students and school sites that school resource officers have, particularly at the middle school level.
Sara Woodham, the parent of two Jordan students, described the incident as "appalling" and "inappropriate."
"All of us -- parents, teachers, staff, administration, police -- need to have a clear understanding about the different levels (of) the use of police on campus," she said. "Speaking for this specific incident, I had no idea you could ask a policeman to take your child to school. You do it once ... they sort of became like surrogate (school) staff in a way. That's really where the line just got way too blurry." Woodham questioned how officers could engage directly with students "without administrative or parental permission."
"That is the business of protocols and training," she said.
Woodham also expressed concern over the presence of armed police on middle school campuses, short of an emergency.
Police Chief Burns met with Woodham and other concerned parents to discuss the issue. Beyond protocols and accountability, Woodham also expressed to him the importance of talking with parents to understand the effect of such interactions on students, particularly students of color, she said. The incident, which involved an African-American student, ignited some tensions within the parent community about how "police interacting with students at school registers to children of different races, ethnicities, backgrounds and needs," Woodham said.
Woodham and Kim Bomar, co-chairs of Parent Advocates for Student Success (PASS), wrote to McGee and several school board members on Aug. 21 to voice their concern.
"It is apparent that there were many breaches of procedure (and basic common sense) involving the conduct of the police officers involved," they wrote. "Our families entrust our children to you, and armed police acting outside of strict protocols is a potential tragedy waiting to happen.
"We urge you to follow up with the local police authorities to ensure that there are clear protocols around if and when armed police are allowed on campus, their ability to communicate directly with students, and oversight and disciplinary procedures when breaches occur."
They also urged McGee to expedite the hiring of a district-level equity director the first recommendation of the superintendent's minority achievement and talent development committee "who would not only work to foster a culture of equity in the district, but would be accountable for addressing and preventing disturbing problems like this one."
A full job description and application for this position was approved by the school board and posted last month.
Woodham said she's optimistic that more clearly defined protocols will produce greater accountability and transparency around police interactions with students and staff.
"I look forward to seeing what shifts in protocols they do come up with," she said. "Removing the opportunity for this to happen is, of course, paramount."
McGee wrote in his Aug. 28 "Weekly" that he will be sending a message to the community soon "regarding the importance of identity safety for every student" and to communicate revised procedures for school resource officers.
McGee said one of his first meetings when he arrived at the district last year was, in fact, with the school resource officers to meet them and discuss their role. He plans to have the officers do the same with both new and longtime administrators, including a meeting with the district's K-12 leadership team.
"Although we have contracts for the school resource officers, the protocols around their presence on campus needs to again just be refreshed and rewritten and redistributed," McGee said in an interview. "Everybody needs to be more up to speed."