At San Diego Unified School District, students say police have no place on their campuses, despite some progress the district’s police department has made in recent years.
In the past 12 years, the number of arrests and detentions conducted by San Diego Unified’s Police Department is down by more than 50%. The department’s most dramatic progress has been with Latinx students.
In the 2007-2008 school year, about 1.2% of Latinx students were arrested or detained by school police. In 2018-2019, that number dropped to less than half of a percent.
In fact, the disparity in arrest and detention rates between Latinx and white students was eliminated by 2015. District officials believe an investment in restorative justice programs played a role in the declining arrest rates.
In 2012, the district partnered with the National Conflict Resolution Center to train teachers and principals at San Diego Unified to keep students out of the criminal justice system.
“The practices that we use with Latinx students is not so much different from any other groups within the schools,” said Francisco Carbajal, the director of alternative juvenile justice at the NCRC. “We’ve seen cases come from San Diego school police where we have shown that recidivism completely drops when students are being diverted to a community-led opportunities rather than concentrating on traditional punishments.”
San Diego Unified is one of the few school districts in California with its own police department. Its 41-officer force costs the district about $9 million each year, less than 1% of the district’s overall budget.
According to students, some schools have as many as four officers at a time patrolling a campus. Students say that makes their schools feel like prisons.
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“Personally I don’t feel safe with the police presence,” said Omar Federico Mondragon, one of the students leading the Defund School Police movement at San Diego Unified.
Despite successes with Latinx students, the arrest rate for Black students is about 1.1%, three times as high as other groups. The historical mistreatment of people with Black and brown skin by police is why Latinx students like Mondragon have joined the fight to defund the police at San Diego Unified.
While the data might show evidence of less discrimination against Latinx students by police, Mondragon and fellow student advocates say that any investment in police is disinvestment in student well-being.
“Those funds are going to more police officers when it could be going to social and economic mobility programs,” Mondragon said. “It could be going to college readiness programs.”
The district is not considering eliminating the police department, but there are those working to create a middle ground.
Michelle Ferrer, who oversees the restorative justice program at San Diego Unified, said she’s been inspired by how open the district’s police chief has been to restorative justice practices.
“Chief [Michael Marquez] is always candid and honest about the ways in which officers in the past were trained and that there’s a shift happening, and he believes in the [restorative justice] framework,” Ferrer said. “I’ve heard him multiple times talk about his own experiences with learning the framework, and he tells officers that this is the way we’re going.”
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San Diego Unified police Chief Michael Marquez wasn’t available for an interview, but Capt. Joseph Florentino said the department’s approach to policing has changed dramatically since he started 20 years ago.
For example, if a student is caught carrying a knife at school, the consequences today are a lot different from what they were before restorative justice.
“Now, instead of sending that student to court, we’ll send them to either the National Conflict Resolution Center or different diversion providers so that the student can go through a program to realize the dangers of carrying a knife,” Florentino said.
Florentino said he wants to hear from more students about their concerns about policing.
Student activists maintain that the San Diego Unified Police Department needs to be defunded, not reformed.
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