San Marin community campaigns against Student Resource Officers

Starting in 2018, school shootings in the U.S. took over the media. There were 80 school shootings between 2018 and 2019 across the U.S. which prompted the Novato Unified School District (NUSD), along with many other districts nationwide, to take action to protect their students. In 2018, NUSD hired two Student Resource Officers (SRO), Officer Wagner and Officer Rodriguez. Recently, there has been opposition to SRO’s in Marin schools due to members of the community suggesting that there is prejudice against minorities and students of color. This began in San Rafael schools where the position was completely removed and now a similar backlash has developed in Novato. Members of the community have submitted public comments to the NUSD Board concerning the removal of SRO’s. Currently, the NUSD board does not have a plan to remove SRO’s from Novato schools. Police Free Schools Marin (PFSM), a grassroots campaign, is working to remove police from Marin County schools and relocate funding to equitable, trauma-informed resources. A grassroots campaign is a movement that uses action at a local level to create change anywhere.  PFSM has now decided to make Novato their main focus in removing SROs from schools. 

“The school resource officers are there to provide a safe environment and to educate and build relationships with students” Director of Communications and Community Engagement, Leslie Benjamin said. The current student resource officer at San Marin is Officer Nick Wagner.

When school is in session, Wagner has no average day. Although many students do not have any interaction with Wagner, they do see him armed and in uniform along with his car parked in front of the school. 

“One of my goals as an SRO is to make sure that somebody’s first interaction with a police officer is positive,” Wagner said. “I want people to see me in uniform approach me and feel like there isn’t a wall there. I want people to see police officers and our department’s police officers as people.” 

However, PFSM sees this daily exposure to firearms and law enforcement to have quite the opposite effect. 

“The presence of weapons and law enforcement on campus leads to students experiencing higher levels of anxiety and stress than if they attended a school that didn’t have SRO’s,” PSFM organizer Emma Newman said. 

The majority of students at San Marin feel differently according to a survey that was conducted on Oct. 27. 69.4 percent of students felt that having Officer Wagner on campus made them feel more safe while only 30.6 percent of them felt he did not. Many students expressed their empathy towards minorities, but added that Officer Wagner specifically, did his job well and made them feel safe.

“I understand why some people, especially people of color would be reluctant to have Officer Wagner on campus…I can’t even imagine what POC must be feeling during these times,” an anonymous student said. “However, I have met Officer Wagner and I believe he is a good person who is good at his job and just wants to keep all students at San Marin safe.” 

Some San Marin staff have fought for the presence of SRO’s for years. Teachers like Robert Lacy, an AP human geography and US History teacher, have experienced what it is like at San Marin when there is not an SRO. After comparing both experiences, he feels that having Officer Wagner on campus deters unwanted behaviors.

“That type of presence is useful,” Lacy said. “It has an impact on curbing some behaviors that we don’t want around here just because of his presence.” 

Officer Wagner was put in place to help give communication between schools, students, and the local police. Prior to his position as an SRO, when a school in NUSD needed the assistance of law enforcement they were met with an officer who knew little about the school, students, or administration. Now, Officer Wagner works closely with students and administration in schools throughout NUSD. He has extensive training in many areas beyond the required training of a police officer including drugs, mental health, a national school resource officer training course, and a California certified training course. Officer Wagner has a total of over 80 hours of training through these courses helping him learn how to work with minors. However, this training is not the required training of a school counselor. Counselors are required to have a bachelor’s degree in the social sciences and attend graduate school and obtain a master’s degree in counseling. 

“The reality is that SRO’s are not qualified or trained to provide mental health services to children and young adults,” Newman said. “While SRO’s may provide lay-person level ‘guidance,’ students deserve professionals who are extensively trained in childhood development, positive behavioral interventions and supports, de-escalation techniques, trauma enforced care, and therapeutic techniques to fully and best support youth with their behavioral needs.” 

The opposing side argues that counselors cannot provide the resources that an officer can since SRO’s are not there to be counselors, counselors are not there to be SRO’s. However, according to PFSM, another major issue is the need to oppose racism in schools. 

“This targeting of students of color in Marin County is institutionally racist, and the maintenance of SRO programs is upholding institutional racism,” Newman said. “Opposing SRO’s is opposing racism in schools.” 

This pattern of targeting minority students is not specific to Marin County. Studies have consistently shown this racism within schools across the nation. 

 “Black students are more than twice as likely as their white classmates to be referred to law enforcement,” a Skadden Fellow for a two-year fellowship for young lawyers, West Resendes said. “Black students are three times as likely to be arrested as their white classmates.” 

Criminalizing youth with introduction to law enforcement at a young age leads to the school-to-prison pipeline.

 “The school-to-prison pipeline is a process through which students are pushed out of schools and into prisons,” Nicki Lisa, a former writer for Thought Co. who has a B.A., M.A., and a Ph. D in sociology said. “In other words, it is a process of criminalizing youth that is carried out by disciplinary policies and practices within schools that put students into contact with law enforcement.” This becomes an increasing issue when the rate of black students versus white students referred to law enforcement is 2:1. Moreover, while black youth only make up about 15 percent of the population from ages 10-17, 40 percent of juveniles in public long-term institutions are black youth. Officer Wagner works to make sure the school to prison pipelines do not affect any students no matter the circumstance.

“The last thing we want to do is be the reason that someone struggles in life in the future,” Wagner said. “It is our goal to help our community and educate them on the laws and do the right thing.”

Due to privacy issues, San Marin is not allowed to share any data they have about Officer Wagner and the students involved specifically. There is no definitive way to know if national data reflects what is currently happening in NUSD.

“This is Novato, I do not think we have the same issue at least not to that degree,” Lacy said. “This isn’t like it is everywhere, everywhere isn’t like it is here.”

PFSM allows students to share their stories online. As of now, they have had 24 students in Marin speak out about having negative experiences with an SRO. They found that over 60 parents, students, school staff, and community members have submitted public comments to the NUSD Board involving the removal of SRO’s. After uncovering the amount of opposition with SRO’s in the Novato community they have decided to make Novato their main focus. Their organization hosted a protest down Grant Avenue on Sept. 26. Over 80 members of the community attended the protest as well as sit-ins at the NUSD district office. Members of PFSM have sent emails, submitted comments, and spoken with students to relay their concerns. Currently, they are still waiting for their areas of concern to make it to the NUSD Boards agenda.

“Responses from the Board were vague…if they even took the time to respond to us at all,” Newman said.

NUSD currently has no plan for change or discussion regarding SRO’s without any community feedback to back up the need for change. They are still looking for student and Novato community feedback.

 “I think it’s ridiculous,” sophomore Mahalia Morgan said. “Especially since SRO’s are supposed to build the community. As one of the 14 black kids at San Marin, I have never had Officer Wagner reach out and because of the history in this country I feel like that would’ve been the right thing to do.”

Police Free Schools Marin held a sit-in at the NUSD district office on Oct. 20. At the sit-in, people in the community were able to express their thoughts concerning SROs through signs, chalk drawings, and candles.

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