Monday, Feb.11, 2008 | The lunch bell rings, and three thousand teenagers pour out of six schools onto the San Diego High School campus, jostling and joking under the gaze of the lone police officer assigned to the sprawling downtown school.
The sea of sneakers, backpacks and iPods adds up to the largest group of teens anywhere in San Diego — a group that includes more than 20 registered gang members and dozens of wannabes. And it’s up to Officer Luis Espinoza to keep the peace.
Strolling through the vast campus at lunchtime, Espinoza maps out the teen cliques clustered around picnic tables and palm trees. Those are the skaters, he says, and those are the kids from Barrio Logan, where he grew up; beyond them, the athletes; further still, the kids from North Park.
“Believe me — I didn’t used to know all this,” he said.
Five months into his new job as campus officer at San Diego High, Espinoza doesn’t know every name or every face — a Herculean feat on this massive campus, split into six distinct schools. He relies heavily on five campus supervisors, who he calls his “eyes and ears,” scattered around the downtown school. It’s impossible to see everyone, he said, but he still makes the rounds.
“It’s more the kids seeing me,” Espinoza said, “than me seeing them.”
It’s a rare quiet day for Espinoza, one of 58 school police officers in San Diego Unified schools. Between 2001 and 2006, the district’s expulsion rate nearly doubled, according to the most recent available data. That rate dropped 15 percent in 2007, as San Diego Unified introduced “a gamut of interventions,” including character education and other counseling, said Eddie Caballero, administrator of the district’s Parent, Community and Student Engagement Office.
But the biggest campuses remain a challenge, especially for a department whose numbers have been cut over time. Espinoza is the sole officer assigned to this campus. He gets sporadic help from three additional school officers who patrol the area spanning from Barrio Logan north to Torrey Pines. Their department, San Diego Unified School District Police, is unusual: A fully-accredited agency focused solely on the schools. Statewide, roughly a dozen such agencies exist.
Compared to other county law enforcement agencies, San Diego Unified police earn relatively low salaries. A raise, recently approved by the school board, still leaves the department below the median salary for local law enforcement.
And unlike municipal departments, school police aren’t mandated, making them more vulnerable to budget cuts. In 2005, the department lost a third of its officers to an early retirement incentive, and has yet to restore its ranks, said Jesus Montana, president of the school police union. Yet school officers say they’re lured to the department by better benefits, regular hours, and the chance to work with youth.
Keith Boyd, a school patrol officer, recalls grappling with methamphetamine addicts and stepping into domestic disputes as a Sheriff’s deputy in Imperial Beach. It was honorable work, he says, but dispiriting. In the schools, he sees more hope, a chance to turn kids around.
“The mindset is rehabilitation,” Espinoza said. “With adults, it’s ‘You should know better.’”
Unlike other officers, Espinoza has a wider array of penalties at his fingertips, and can zero in on milder crimes. The school is like a small town, he said, with resources to turn misbehavior around in short reach. As teens file into the school off Park Avenue, Espinoza stops a teen boy, who is gripping his girlfriend’s wrists under the flagpole. The boy glowers; her eyes are downcast. Quietly, the girl says she doesn’t want to talk about it — it’s personal. Espinoza tells the boy to let her go, and reminds them that there’s a counselor available, if they want.
“People like to badmouth the police when they get caught for things,” said Elijah Lechman, a sophomore in the International Studies school. “But [the police] don’t cause problems. They watch people, and that’s pretty much it.”
After the bell rings, Espinoza settles into his office, a stark, fluorescent-lit room where he reviews yesterday’s reports: two girls arrested for setting off fireworks, another girl arrested for smoking, someone else in trouble for marijuana. Thefts of iPods and phones are the most common crime, and rarely solved, Espinoza said. At lunchtime, he stakes out a promenade, hoping to catch the students who’ve been throwing fruit at a downhill bus stop.
Since San Diego High split into six smaller schools, even little things like fruit-throwing matter more, said Joe Austin, principal of the School of Business. The division was intended to foster smaller communities with more adult attention. Austin believes that’s why expulsions have increased dramatically at San Diego High. In 2006, the six schools reported 25 expulsions. In 2001, no one was expelled. By breaking up into smaller schools, the school may be spotting — and punishing — more problems.
“This place was the epicenter of anonymity,” Austin said. “And kids make the worst decisions when we’re not there. … Now, there’s more eyes out there.”
San Diego High has also extended its reach beyond the campus, partnering with nearby businesses and the trolley to quash problems en route to school. Down the street, a McDonald’s shoos out non-student loiterers; trolley security now know the school police, and call them, Espinoza said. After racially-tinged fights erupted in the trolley cars between black and Latino students, school police, parents, city police and trolley security formed a task force, and started monitoring the trolleys more closely.
“Every week was like Fight Club,” Austin said. He recalled one joint meeting with city police, where an officer jokingly drew barbed wire on a map of the school, saying, ‘I’ve got the solution.’ Austin invited the officers onto his campus, sent staff onto the trolleys, and slowly the fights tapered off. “Now, we’re collectively responsible for these kids.”
But union president Montana says school police remain understaffed, making proactive measures such as the trolley effort more difficult. Unlike Espinoza, who patrols only San Diego High, most high school officers are also assigned a middle school. At least five spots remain vacant, he said. When Lincoln High School opened, an officer was pulled from La Jolla High to cover it.
“It’s not that people aren’t applying,” Montana said. “But we don’t want the John Waynes. The old John Wayne syndrome of law enforcement — that doesn’t work in school police. Our goal isn’t to arrest juveniles for every little infraction. We want them to learn from the bumps in life.”
Espinoza has done exactly that. He rattles off the names of gangsters in Arellano Felix’ cartel — guys he knew as a kid, he said.
“I hung out with the toughest guys … I tell the kids, ‘You can’t intimidate me,’” he said. But at home, he tuned in to Hawaii Five-O on a black and white TV, and dreamed of being an officer.
Raised in Barrio Logan, Espinoza graduated from San Diego High himself, long before the school was split. He fondly calls it “the Gray Castle,” and points out the fields where he used to play baseball, the music room where he played mariachi guitar, the cafeteria at neighboring San Diego City College where he got his daily $1.99 lunch — a deep-fried burrito, a salad and a Coke.
Today, students can’t do that. They’re barred from going off-campus during lunch, a fact Espinoza is grateful for. It makes it easier to spot truants wandering over to nearby Balboa Park, and to turn them back towards school, the same school that nurtured him.
“I wish someone had done that for me,” he said. “… Fortunately, I idolized cops more than I did crooks.”
(Correction: The original version of this story and its headline incorrectly stated the number of schools at San Diego High School. We regret the error.)