.Fatal stabbing of Montgomery High student reveals underlying issues

Nearly two weeks after tragedy struck Montgomery High School, thousands of students and community members have raised concerns about safety at Santa Rosa’s public schools, but solutions remain elusive.

The much-needed discussion was sadly triggered by the March 1 death of a 16-year-old boy who, along with another student, was stabbed by a 15-year-old student during an on-campus fight. Citing confidentiality laws, district administrators have only shared limited details about the students’ relationship leading up to the final confrontation. 

The Sonoma County District Attorney has charged the 15-year-old boy with voluntary manslaughter and other offenses. On Sunday, March 12, two Montgomery High School administrators were reportedly placed on leave. The Santa Rosa Police Department announced on Monday that an officer has been assigned to stay on Montgomery High School’s campus through Tuesday after school administrators caught two students with knives on campus on Friday.

While the public discussion has often focused on whether or not to bring police officers back to campuses, public comments made clear that the districts’ problems run much deeper.

At a March 8 meeting of the Santa Rosa City Schools board, over 100 students, parents, teachers and community members shared a wide range of grievances with district officials. Central concerns included an increase in on-campus violence, poor communication from officials during too-frequent emergencies at multiple campuses, a severe lack of mental health resources and Montgomery High School’s failing infrastructure.

Santa Rosa school board - Will Carruthers
Two students look through a Santa Rosa City Hall window during an at-capacity school board meeting on March 8.

School Resource Officers

Early on in the debate over possible solutions, some focused on bringing police officers back to Santa Rosa public schools. In 2020, the school board declined to renew a contract with the Santa Rosa Police Department providing officers to monitor the district’s middle and high school campuses. In doing so, they overruled a committee created to study the issue. That committee had suggested continuing the program with some changes.

Less than a week after the stabbing, the Press Democrat’s editorial board endorsed bringing the officers back to school. Meanwhile, the Santa Rosa Police Officers Association, the union representing officers, took to Instagram to urge supporters to speak at public meetings. 

“Fear comes from the unknown. By getting an opportunity to form a relationship with an officer on campus, these kids that are allegedly afraid will see that these officer[s] care for them deeply. These types of interactions only help everyone,” a March 4 POA post stated.

However, support for this approach seems less than overwhelming among those who spoke at public meetings. At the March 8 school board meeting, 106 members of the public, mostly students, teachers and parents of past or current students, took the opportunity to address the board. 

The majority of speakers asked for more resources and improved communication, without specifying whether or not they supported the school resource officers. Of those who specifically referenced the program, 17 speakers asked for the return of officers while 14 speakers opposed the idea.

Opponents cite studies about the tendency of school resource officers to disproportionately punish students of color. A 2020 report by a University of Connecticut researcher notes that school resource officers don’t guarantee the prevention of school shootings and other acts of violence, and can actually make students feel more unsafe.

“We need more support for mental health resources and not police in our schools. Around 65% of my peers are people of color, and the last thing I want to see is members of my Viking (Montgomery) family in an uncomfortable position because of the color of their skin,” Ava Parmelee, a Montgomery senior, told the board.

One student group, “Value Life, Not Violence,” is circulating a petition which calls for an increase in “non-police security,” among other changes.

Santa Rosa protest sign - March 8, 2023
One student’s sign at the March 8 protest read “Treat the problem not the symptoms. This means increased mental health funding.”

Funding Shortage

Looming behind the SRO debate and other possible solutions is the district’s budget and employees’ salaries. Santa Rosa City Schools’ SRO program began in the 1990s, at a time when such programs were spreading across the country as part of a federally-funded response to on-campus shootings. 

Until an agreement was allowed to expire in 2019, the Santa Rosa Police Department footed the bill for the school resource officer program. Alternatives suggested by some speakers, such as additional therapists, counselors and non-police campus supervisors, would likely be funded by the school district.

Vanessa Wedderburn, a district spokesperson, told the Bohemian that the district has added 27.45 full time equivalent employees in a range of support roles since the SRO contract expired. 

However, the effort was not enough to prevent the fatal stabbing or, judging from public comments, make students and teachers feel safe on campus. Communication about existing resources was also lacking, according to comments at the board meeting. Multiple students said they were unaware that their school had a therapist. When they learned there was one, they were dismayed to learn the waitlist was hundreds of students long.

In order to make any improvements, the district will have to address its long-running struggle to recruit new employees. Though the district is offering a $1,000 hiring bonus, its job listing page currently lists 121 open positions.

Asked about the reasons behind the staffing struggle, Wedderburn stated, “We are experiencing the same challenges that most school districts and other industries are experiencing with recruitment.”

Other commenters suggested skimpy salaries are part of the problem. At the board meeting, Jim LaFrance, a longtime Montgomery High School teacher, said that campus supervisors tasked with keeping campuses safe are paid $17.40 per hour, far below the regional cost of living. Current job listings for campus supervisor positions at Maria Carrillo and Ridgway high schools, two other Santa Rosa City Schools campuses, list the same starting pay rate.

“The job they’re being asked to do for $17.40 an hour is herculean. It’s imperative that we have more support, and the people that are supporting us need to make a living wage,” LaFrance said.

For their part, school board members promised action while setting expectations.

“I think [California is] 31st in terms of per pupil funding in the country, and we’re the fourth largest economy in the world. So it is immoral that we spend as little money as we do because, let’s get real, we can’t afford all these things without a different budget,” Laurie Fong, a longtime district board member and local school administrator, said towards the end of the board meeting.

Two days later, district officials met with Rep. Mike Thompson to discuss methods of getting more money for the district. Only time will tell if they are able to make more money flow.

Will Carruthershttp://www.wrcarruthers.com
Will Carruthers is the news editor of the Pacific Sun and North Bay Bohemian. Email tips to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @Carruthers_W.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Whatever it takes, schools need to be trusted spaces. Serious education cannot occur when the environment is toxic or chaotic.

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  2. Metal detectors in all high schools!!!
    Despite the way it “looks” socially it could save lives and prevent weapons into schools!

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  3. I feel that there needs to be more therapists on campus to be there for the students ,at least 3 per grade level to be able to have time for all students , but there should be a couple officers on campus too .maybe not in uniform, it would make students feel more at ease knowing there was someone there to better handle a situation like what happened before, it could have been prevented had the teachers been trained better to handle in those situation , I think all teachers should be required to go thru atleastsome type of training as to how to defuse those situations

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    • Wow, you sound like a regular Alfred Einstein.

      When children’s safety at school is the issue, what kind of person would even ask that question?

      People like that this are why students feel like nobody is listening to them. How selfish, when kids are getting murdered.

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  4. High school kids keep saying their voices aren’t heard,that leaders aren’t serious about protecting children from violence at school. Those children are right.

    When a car drove through protesters at Santa Rosa High, on the wrong side of the street, hitting two people and speeding off with one still on the hood, SRPD officers sent away eyewitnesses, preventing them from filing police reports. In fact, there is no official record this hit-and-run ever happened. This prevented the person, who got hit in the crosswalk, from pressing criminal charges or suing for damages.

    A complaint was filed, with a copy of this videotape, and Sgt Ben Harlin concluded the driver had “stopped several times” but her unwilling passenger “refused” to get off. See for yourself how many times the driver stopped.

    DA Jill Ravitch sent me an email thanking me for “reporting wrongdoing” but also made it clear she planned on doing nothing about it. This is why high school kids think they aren’t being listened to.

    The city auditor who got hired a few years ago was informed about this video even before he started his job. Since he was tasked with investigating how complaints are handled, or covered up, this video was the perfect place to start. But despite the hints, he apparently never looked into it. This is why high school students feel they aren’t being heard.

    A few years ago, all city council members were informed of this cover-up, by emails and postcards, several times a week for several months. I never got a single response. Maybe they never read any of their mail from constituents, because the only other option is they learned about this hit-and-run, but decided to do nothing about it. This is why high school students feel they aren’t being heard.

    I’ve also told dozens of reporters at news agencies all over the state and beyond, but nobody can be bothered to watch this video of a car driving through a crowd in front of Santa Rosa High School. This is why high school students feel they aren’t being heard, and they are completely correct.

    I hope all those students, who don’t get killed, register to vote.

    https://youtube.com/watch?v=d2OzOtoBxrw

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    • I know that guy. He’s from Utah.
      Mormons deserve what they get.
      He also looks like a weirdo, so he must have done something to deserve it.

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  5. I can see why all those high school students are planning a mass suicide-by-cop at the police station on May 5th. At least they’ll have control over when their young lives get snuffed out.

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    • I’m from Santa Rosa High and my friemds are going to the protest.

      I hope #DavidHogg helps people listen to us.
      Nobody else does.

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    • @BryanKresie
      This is what I was telling you about.

      Old Farm Apartments – try remembering what happened there to your classmate Brett.

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  6. Holy crap that video is messed up, in so many ways. If that driver wasn’t a white girl with big boobs, she would have gone straight to jail. And she lied right in the cops face, and he went along with it.

    You need to watch it. You just won’t believe it.
    https://youtube.com/watch?v=d2OzOtoBxrw

    If Santa Rosa cops cover up something like this, in front of hundreds of people, knowing there’s video tape, what else are they covering up?

    Are cops embezzling evidence too? Or just covering up when some white girl drives her car through a crowd because she’s late for work?

    Are the local cops robbing banks around here too? Where does it end?

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  7. Hey North Bay Bohemian editors,
    I just watched that hit and run video.

    Did you guys really know about that video? You knew that this got covered up by the cops? You knew the city council knew about it, but helped cover it up?

    You knew that cop pulled that journalist’s camera out of his hand, and that doesn’t bother you? What if that had been a Bohemian writer, would you have run the story then?

    If that’s all true, all those people knew about this but did nothing, then you’re all worthless. And you prove all the kids right when they say nobody’s listening to them.

    I hope every student in Sonoma County walks out of school on May 5th to join me in the lobby of the Santa Rosa Police Department, to make my voice heard.

    I urge all students around the country, if you feel so unsafe in school you don’t have a future, to join us in walking out and protesting at your police station at noon May 5th. They can’t keep ignoring all of us forever. They’ll just try to.

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  8. I’m a junior at Piner High and I’ll be there with all my friends

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  9. I’m from Montgomery and I’m going to the protest because nobody listens

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