Friday, April 12, 2024

Questions from the Press, Friday, April 12, 2024, Community Resource Officer.

On Thursday, March 11, Sonoma Police Chief Brandon Cutting provided a comprehensive overview of the Community Resource Officer (CRO) program to the Sonoma Valley Unified Board, highlighting its development and the strategic focus on enhancing community and school interactions. He explained, "In 2022, the city agreed with the county, the Sheriff's Office, to add a community resource officer or community-oriented policing position to handle several different points of focus." This initiative was part of a broader response to community needs that evolved due to staffing changes and emerging local issues. The role was specifically designed to "develop relationships with our community residents, attend and provide crime prevention events at city events, and be a resource to provide referrals to support residents, our community partners, and business owners." Moreover, the CRO aims to "deter crime on or around campuses and build relationships with school staff and students," ensuring a supportive environment conducive to educational success.

Addressing potential concerns about the CRO's role in the schools, Chief Cutting clarified that the CRO's presence is fundamentally different from traditional School Resource Officers (SROs). He stated, "This position will not police the students as this role is only proactive in being a positive model of what law enforcement represents in the community." Emphasizing the non-punitive nature of the CRO, he reassured the community and school board, "We really need to have this agreement so we can have some general guidelines and some rules... The only thing we wanna do is continue that feeling of safety on the campus." The commitment to maintaining a safe and non-disruptive presence in schools was underlined by his promise of transparency and ongoing dialogue: "The Chief of Police will provide statistics and situational updates monthly at School Board meetings as requested." These efforts underscore a dedicated approach to fostering a secure and supportive environment for students, staff, and the wider community. After the presentation and public comment, the board discussed the matter and voted 4-1 to approve the MOU as presented, with Trustee Winders against.

Below, I answer questions from the Sonoma Index-Tribune/Santa Rosa Press Democrat regarding the meeting. The photograph is of my mom, Joyce, with my youngest daughter, Margaux Joyce Kelly,.

Questions 1 and 2 (combined): It seemed to me that you initially were in support of approving this item at the meeting, but later had some strong reservations. Is that a correct assessment? Please explain. You, along with three other trustees, voted to approve the item, correct? If so, why did you vote to approve it?

My position was the same the whole time. As I said last night, "[o]n balance, I'm inclined to support tonight the fact that we would adopt this MOU. Alternatively, I would be prepared for us to take a second read of it. But I think we need to make clear the relationship with law enforcement going forward." 

We have a critical need for stability and safety on our campuses, which has been underscored by my personal experiences and professional understanding of the benefits of having a well-defined relationship with law enforcement. That support is despite concerns about the sustainability and consistency of funding for the Community Resource Officer (CRO) program. I was also concerned about ensuring that contractual responsibilities were properly aligned and that the program's objectives were transparent and well-understood by all stakeholders. My emphasis on having everything in writing reflects my legal background and my commitment to clarity and accountability in how we implement such significant policies. 

I voted to approve the item along with three other trustees because, on balance, I believe the benefits of having a CRO on campus—especially in terms of building trust and safety among students—outweigh the potential drawbacks. The decision to support the initiative also came from a recognition of the immediate need to address security concerns and foster a positive relationship between students and law enforcement. I felt that approving the MOU was a necessary step to move forward, even as we continue to address and refine the program's funding and operational details. 

I did so being cognizant of the fact that the contract is for 18 months, without an out-of-pocket expenditure by the District, and should the program not work out, the District can exit on 30 days' notice with no financial penalty. This gives us a year and a half to evaluate the program, make necessary changes, and be in a position to, I think, have SVUSD shoulder some of the costs after that period should this initial timespan work as expected. As it was the City of Sonoma that defunded the program, that the costs of restarting not be borne by the District strikes me as fair, but after this period of re-engagement, I would expect the financial relationship to be along the lines of what existed previously, with SVUSD bearing a third of the cost. 

3. Do you think having a CRO is a good idea? Why or why not?

I believe that having a Community Resource Officer is a good idea. On January 8, 2020, two of our middle school students were sexually assaulted on the way to school and, given the close working relationship between our school staff and law enforcement, the perpetrator was identified and detained within approximately 90 minutes. The clear and well-understood relationship between our school staff and our sworn peace officers was something we relied on that day and, when in December 2020 that contract with the police was disrupted, SVUSD's resources to address school safety issues were seriously impacted; I observed this directly in the interim. 

Going forward, I believe the program will have a positive impact on the safety and well-being of our students. From my personal history and from observations within the district, the presence of a dedicated law enforcement officer can deter violence and provide a fundamental sense of security for a conducive learning environment. Moreover, a CRO can play an important role in educating students about law enforcement, thereby building a foundation of trust and understanding that can extend beyond the school grounds. However, for such a program to be successful and sustainable, it must be backed by clear policies, consistent funding, and ongoing community engagement to ensure it meets the needs and expectations of all involved. I had hoped that we could unanimously back the program, and I encouraged the trustees to take steps that might have allowed that, but on balance the trustees, I think, felt the time for action was now, and given that, my choice is to support the program. 

4. Do you think that the position, as described by Chief Cutting, is a good idea? Why or why not?

The position as described by Chief Cutting seems fundamentally to be a good idea, particularly due to the proactive approach of integrating law enforcement within the educational environment in a way that builds trust and security. This is in accord with my belief in the importance of establishing a safe and secure learning environment where students can thrive without the fear of violence. Chief Cutting's description emphasizes a collaborative and educational role for the Community Resource Officer (CRO), which is at the core of fostering positive relationships between students and law enforcement. This preventive approach can help mitigate issues before they escalate, contributing to a healthier school climate.

5. Do you feel that any areas of the job, as described by Chief Cutting, need to be changed or reconsidered?

While the description of the job by Chief Cutting covers many important aspects, one area that might need continued monitoring is the extent of the officer's involvement in disciplinary actions within the school. The CRO's role must remain focused on safety and education rather than disciplinary enforcement, to avoid any potential negative perceptions among students, except in those situations that are both criminal and disciplinary. Additionally, the mechanisms described for accountability and regular feedback from the school community, including students, parents, and faculty, should help ensure that the officer's presence is positively integrated and remains in line with the educational goals of the schools.

6. Now that the position has been approved, do you still see a need for additional input?  If so, from whom?

Yes. These 18 months are not funded by SVUSD, but past that point in time, the district will probably be called upon to shoulder some of the expense, and frankly, I think the school district should bear some of the cost. The next time this MOU is reviewed, I therefore think a price tag will be attached, and ongoing input will be needed to ensure the program evolves in response to the community's needs and concerns. Continuous engagement with a broad spectrum of stakeholders—students, parents, teachers, and community leaders—is necessary to assess the effectiveness of the CRO's role and make adjustments as needed. Particularly, student input is vital, as they are the most affected by the officer's presence. Their feedback can provide insights into how the officer is perceived and the impact on the school environment. Additionally, regular reviews and discussions should be incorporated to ensure that the CRO's integration supports not only physical safety but also contributes positively to the psychological well-being of our students.

7. Do you have concerns that the CRO will cause some of the same concerns among students that an SRO did?

There are valid concerns that the Community Resource Officer (CRO) could evoke some of the same apprehensions among students that were previously associated with the School Resource Officer (SRO) program. One of the primary concerns is the perception of the officer's role—whether it is seen purely as a safety measure or as an extension of disciplinary action within the school. To mitigate these concerns, we must communicate that the CRO's role is primarily supportive and educational, rather than punitive. The integration of the CRO should be handled with sensitivity to student diversity and with proactive measures to build trust, such as engaging students in discussions about their safety and rights. Continuous feedback from students should be sought to adjust the program and address any issues promptly.

8. Do you have concerns about approving an MOU that was somewhat different than the funding document that was approved by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors? Why or why not?

Approving a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that differs from the funding document approved by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors does raise concerns, particularly regarding transparency and consistency in implementation. It is essential that all documents related to such significant roles as the CRO align to prevent confusion and to ensure that all stakeholders—the school district, the law enforcement agencies, our students, and the community—have the same understanding of the program’s scope, responsibilities, and funding. Discrepancies between the MOU and the funding document can lead to challenges in accountability and might complicate future funding or program adjustments. Therefore, it is necessary to reconcile these documents to ensure they accurately reflect the agreed terms and conditions, especially when school district dollars are, I believe, inevitably called upon to support the program. This alignment also supports a clear, unified approach to the program's implementation and evaluation, fostering greater trust and cooperation among all parties involved.

9. Would you like to say anything else?

Yes, in the meeting last night, I shared some personal information, and it informed my decision-making. The quote is below. 

"When I was a kid, I was a victim of pretty severe domestic violence for many years. I don't know if I got it worse or my mom did, but it was awful. And I can tell you what it meant when a police officer showed up. It meant it was over. It meant the violence was over. That's what it meant. And thank God. Because when you're a small child and you're encountering violence, your entire world is turned upside down, and nothing works anymore. And that's the way it is on our school campuses when there's violence. Just one incident can prevent everyone from learning. It prevents everyone from doing what we are trying to do. Violence is an anathema to everything we do in education. And so when I see that officer, what I see is is that the violence is over. And that's what I knew as a kid about school. That's one of the reasons I loved school. Because I knew when I went to school, it was safe. That was the place it was safe. And for many of our kids at home, it's not safe. And we need to know in the future that they're going to be able to reach out to law enforcement when they need to to get the protection that they need to make sure that their life is protected. My mom eventually did that. And thank God it ended. And it took that to do that. So when I see the officer, I have to, as a person elected to do this job, draw on my personal experience to know what's going to happen. And so when I look at it on balance and I see us doing this, what I see is us starting to make sure that our students are able to build up that trust reservoir that will allow them to reach out in their lives and be able to make sure that they get the protection that they deserve."