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Published in Print: June 23, 1999, as S.F. Board Reconsiders New Policy on Police

S.F. Board Reconsiders New Policy on Police

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After a verbal drubbing from San Francisco police, the mayor, the news media, and local citizens over a new policy limiting the role of police on campus, the city's school board appeared last week to be in retreat.

The policy, passed on a 5-1 vote June 8, seeks to define the circumstances under which staff members in the San Francisco schools should call police. It discourages police involvement in situations "that can be safely and appropriately handled by the school" or district.

At the last minute, the board added a provision that would prohibit police officers from carrying guns on routine visits to school. That provision and the limits on when teachers may call police have stirred the most controversy.

The seven-member school board was scheduled to reconsider the entire resolution at a meeting this week. Late last week, support seemed to be diminishing--especially for the gun ban.

In an interview, board member Jill Wynns defended the policy, saying it was necessary to avoid making criminals out of students who had merely misbehaved.

"It's my opinion that administrators are struggling with situations they don't have adequate resources for, and are calling on police more and more," she said. "So we need to clarify policy."

Timing Questioned

But the head of the city teachers' union called the timing, coming so soon after the April 20 massacre at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., unfortunate. "The resolution struck a nerve," said Kent Mitchell, the head of the Unified Educators of San Francisco, a joint affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. "Columbine comes quickly to mind, and it appears to people outside of the school system that the board has suddenly taken leave of its senses."

And local police have rained criticism on the measure, saying it could place schoolchildren at risk. "Our biggest concern is safety in the schools," Police Chief Fred H. Lau said. "We object to any barrier or bureaucratic procedure that keeps a teacher, a parent, a student, an administrator from calling police."

Chief Lau was even more critical of the prohibition on officers' carrying their guns on campus. "I absolutely have to draw the line there," he said in an interview. "It is part of our safety equipment, part of our uniform."

'A Very Clear Message'

The new policy also orders schools to contact parents before their children are questioned by police.

At the June 8 board meeting, dozens of students called for limits on the police role, saying unwarranted intervention had intimidated too many students and left them with criminal records. Many also said that the police presence contributes to a hostile climate in the schools, especially for minority students.

"The students really felt they needed to state they don't like police there" in their schools, said Abigail Trillin, a lawyer for Legal Services for Children in San Francisco, a local group that pushed for the new policy

"We need to send a very clear message to our students that we're trying to work with them," she added. "We shouldn't give them a sense that they are feared more than they are cared about."

Ms. Wynns said the measure would not prevent teachers from calling police immediately in an emergency. "We do not have the authority, nor do we intend to say to anyone that if a Columbine situation breaks out, you have to call the superintendent downtown," the board member said.

Mary T. Hernandez, the sole board member to vote against the new policy, said last week that she did so because she didn't have enough information to endorse it. "And I don't feel the police department had [an adequate] chance to participate," she added.

Last week, a deputy city attorney who represents the district advised the school board that the restriction on police officers was illegal because it was adopted without adequate public notice that a vote would be taken.

Board President Juanita Owens, who was not present for the vote but has said she opposed the resolution, placed the policy on this week's board agenda.

In light of the outcry that has followed the vote earlier this month, several board members have said they are willing to reconsider their positions, in part because they worry about jeopardizing the district's relationship with the police department.

Vol. 18, Issue 41, Page 3

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