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Officer Joseph Knuteson eyed the teen who slouched in his office at Hoover High School. Someone had seen him smoking something outside. Past drug problems scarred his school records and even as he denied smoking, a grin kept sneaking up on his mouth.

Knuteson searched his backpack, turned up a lighter and papers, smelled the teen’s hands. When one of the school coaches stepped into the office, nudging him to ‘fess up, the boy admitted it was “a little joint.”

That confession could get him in big trouble, even arrested. But Knuteson decided not to discipline him. Knuteson and the coach reminded the teen that colleges were trying to recruit him as an athlete. They sent the boy to drug counseling at the school clinic instead.

“You’ve got Division I colleges looking at you — and you’re smoking doobies before school? Are you kidding me?” Knuteson ribbed him with a grin. The boy left sheepishly with his backpack.

Like many school police officers, Knuteson says one of the best things about the job is the luxury of time — time to talk to a teen and his coach, to try a softer tack, check in later and see how it worked. Crimes outside of school don’t pull him away from campus. His job is to be right there at Hoover.

But as San Diego Unified faces another year of budget cuts, the school board is weighing whether it’s a luxury to have school police at all. Running a separate department isn’t unusual in large urban school districts like New York and Los Angeles. San Diego Unified has had its own school police since the tumult of the civil rights movement.

Now many school districts are cutting costs. “It’s a changing tide,” said William Modzeleski, associate assistant deputy secretary in the federal Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. “School districts have to ask, has it been effective? What about cost?”

Cutting the entire department is estimated to save $5.4 million, a small slice of the district’s roughly $142 million deficit. Staffed by more than six dozen employees, it is the biggest central office department on the chopping block, even though its budget has already been slashed by a quarter in the past five years.

The department runs a dispatch center where it monitors security cameras day and night, employs its own detectives, fixes its own cruisers and has its own chief. Police are also the biggest users of school overtime, logging more than $700,000 annually late at football games and school dances.

No one seems to know what, if anything, would replace school police if they were cut.

Some school districts simply rely on local law enforcement like anyone else. Other school districts in San Diego County pay outside police agencies to loan them officers and split the costs of their salaries.

“What’s wrong with outsourcing?” said William Wright, who sits on the school district finance committee. “We already have a San Diego Police Department. If you really need police, you dial 911.”

Because school police are dedicated to schools and schools alone, they jump at food fights or campus thefts that might be less pressing for city police juggling other duties, said Jesus Montana, who polices Clairemont High School.

“If you don’t own the cops,” said Peter Pochowski, executive director of the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officials, “you’re another customer on their call list.”

The San Diego Police Department is already stressed by its own budget cuts. It typically responds to 650,000 calls annually. School police typically respond to 10,000 calls annually.

“They’re up against the wall too,” said school board member Katherine Nakamura. “They sold their horses, for goodness sake.”

Assistant Chief Boyd Long of SDPD said the city can’t guarantee the same amount of attention as school police. Nearly half of the calls that school police shoulder are seemingly routine, such as checking on closed schools, patrolling near a school to deter fights or visiting schools just to check in.

School Police Sgt. Joe Florentino said most of their work is actually preventing crime by counseling teens, meeting with families, or even shooing tardy students into class. Focusing on kids and how to nudge them away from crime — not just lock them up — is what makes school police special, he said.

“I probably do more counseling than police work,” said Tony Gonzalez, the school officer at Point Loma High School. “I can take the extra time if a kid is crying because she broke up with her boyfriend.” As he walked the campus between classes, Gonzalez called out, “What’s up?” at a girl who grins and waves.

Other school districts like Grossmont say they can get the same soft touch in contracted police officers, if they choose them carefully. School policing experts say what matters is how they do the job: trying to prevent crime and steer kids straight instead of just enforcing the law.

“No matter what, there are going to be problems if the officer is seeking to arrest youth,” said Annie Salsich, director of the Center on Youth Justice at the Vera Institute of Justice. “It’s amazing how much classic misbehavior in schools can fall under the category of a crime.”

Contracting out for police can be cheaper, but not always.

While Sweetwater Union High School District plans to spend about $57,000 per officer for police who split their time between schools and the cities, Vista Unified spends more than $135,000 each for its two officers.

San Diego Unified falls in the middle, spending more than $80,000 for each officer, including both sworn police and less costly officers at elementary schools. But it also buys much more policing — and more kinds of police services — than other districts.

The dilemma for San Diego Unified is whether it can cut costs but save the things it has treasured about school police, or whether it will have to cut it entirely. School board members were upset about the idea of slashing school police, but none were sure what alternatives they had in the quest to cut $142 million.

“I’m just happy to have a job right now,” said Florentino as he headed back to his patrol car this Wednesday, after stopping by Point Loma High.

“Amen to that,” Gonzalez said.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter:

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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