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.
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.
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.