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Last week at Lincoln High school, play-fighting turned serious when a school police officer arrived on the scene, used a Taser on one student and pepper-sprayed others. At least one student allegedly punched a school police officer in the head and left him with a serious injury.

In the end, the officer and five students went to the hospital. Jesse Duncan, the student who prosecutors say punched the officer, is facing criminal charges. Two other students were taken into custody.

In the days since, students, parents and residents of Lincoln Park have rallied behind Duncan and voiced concern over the tensions that led to the violence.

Community members are calling for a quick release of surveillance footage said to capture what transpired so they can see why, exactly, the officer turned his Taser and pepper-spray on students.

This is especially relevant in light of the fact that Bashir Abdi, the officer who tased Duncan, has a history of using force against students, according to NBC 7.

Crisis events like this can serve as a jarring reminder that San Diego Unified has its own police force. Parents and community members might be curious just what a school police officer can and can’t do.

We’re curious, too. So earlier this week, when my colleague Kinsee Morlan asked me this question, I thought it would be a good one to explore.

Question: I grew up in a small town in Colorado so I’m not familiar with the concept of police officers being present at schools. What exactly are their roles and is there anything they can’t do that police officers outside of schools can? Honestly, the idea that my sons will have armed officers at their schools is a bit terrifying to me.  – Kinsee Morlan, VOSD engagement editor

If school police in California seem heavily armed to you, it’s not your imagination.

California is among a small handful of states, including Texas, where school districts commission their own police departments. Elsewhere, school districts more often have understandings with local law enforcement agencies that they’ll cover crime within the school district.

School police are real police. They’re part of a fully functioning police department that swears in and trains its own police force. San Diego Unified police has its own K-9 unit and plain clothes officers who work within the investigations department.

District spokeswoman Linda Zintz said school police currently have 72 employees: 43 sworn officers, 17 community service officers, nine dispatchers and three clerical employees. She said that’s down some from recent years.

San Diego Unified police has a written agreement with San Diego Police Department that lays out jurisdiction. School police handle most crimes that take place on campus. So they see assaults, vandalism, theft and petty crimes.

When allegations of child abuse arise, or crimes that involve adults and district employees, SDPD takes the lead. You can read the memorandum of understanding here.

Back in 2014, San Diego Unified’s police force was thrust into the national spotlight when word got out it had received a Mine-Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicle as part of a federal program that provides surplus military equipment to local police departments. It ended up returning the vehicle.

The debacle highlighted a disconnect between the department and the public: The district doesn’t talk much about all the tools within its police department’s arsenal.

This week I asked Zintz for a copy of the policies that outline when school police are authorized to use Tasers and pepper spray.

Zintz confirmed that policies exist, but said district general counsel Andra Donovan would not release the information without a formal California Public Records Act request.

That is, in order for parents to get additional information on the weapons that school police carry, they need to submit a formal legal request and wait to hear back.

Here are a few more tools in San Diego Unified police officers’ cache.

Assault Rifles

School board trustee John Lee Evans first learned that San Diego Unified police officers carried AR-15 assault rifles in 2013 – when he read about it in the Los Angeles Times.

He didn’t recall approving any assault rifles, because he didn’t. Neither did the board approve the MRAP – that one was OK’d by Superintendent Cindy Marten.

That helps explain why school police have weapons parents don’t know about: The department doesn’t need the school board’s permission to get them.

Zintz said that school police officers still have assault rifles and keep them in their cars.

Facial Recognition Software

In August, the New York Times wrote about SDPD’s use of facial recognition technology – a tool developed by military intelligence to help identify terrorists

The technology gives police the ability to photograph a person’s face, run it through a database of hundreds of thousands San Diego mugshots, and match it to features of someone they’ve stopped.

The software’s capabilities are a little big-brotherish, but more disconcerting is the fact San Diego school police also have access to it.

In August, former spokeswoman Ursula Kroemer told me San Diego Unified was given facial recognition devices by the Automated Regional Justice Information System, a network of law enforcement agencies in San Diego County. She said school police officers have only used the devices on a handful of occasions, and only for adults who have been part of criminal investigations.

Even so, the school district has the equipment. What it doesn’t have, though, is a policy that outlines its use. Members of the school board did not approve use of the technology, and parents didn’t hear about it before it came into the district.

“If they don’t have a policy, what’s to stop them tomorrow from saying it’s OK to take pictures of high school seniors – or a parent driving up to pick his son up from school?” San Diego civil rights attorney Victor Manuel Torres told me in August.

Shared Surveillance System

San Diego Unified schools are equipped with more than 1,100 cameras that monitor and record goings-on at campuses. And SDPD has access to that footage.

San Diego Police officers can monitor a live feed from San Diego Unified cameras. The stated purpose is to allow SDPD officers and dispatchers to get a visual if they need to respond to crimes in progress.

That means people outside of the district’s employ can view footage of children, even though SDPD is to consider that footage confidential.

Ed Reads of the Week

• Down with Algebra II! (Slate)

Dana Goldstein, author of “The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession,” this week questions the utility of upper-level math classes in high school. After all, relatively few people truly use or need some upper-level, abstract math concepts.

Goldstein talked to Andrew Hacker, a CUNY professor and author of a recent book on the topic, who thinks high school students could get better use of taking classes like statistics. Upper-level math courses create arbitrary barriers for poor students that keep them out of college, Hacker argued.

Goldstein was sympathetic to Hacker’s point of view. She writes:

As a longtime education reporter, I know that American teachers, especially those in the elementary grades, have taken few math courses themselves, and often actively dislike the subject. Maybe I would have found abstract math more enjoyable if my teachers had been able to explain it better, perhaps by connecting it somehow to the real world. And if that happened in every school, maybe lots more American kids, even low-income ones, would be able to make the leap from arithmetic to the conceptual mathematics of algebra II and beyond.

• Testing for Joy and Grit? Schools Nationwide Push to Measure Students’ Emotional Skills (New York Times)

In recent years there’s been a growing awareness that students possess a hard-to-define quality, a grittiness, that pushes them to learn even when confronted with challenging material. With a bit of nurturing, the thinking goes, this perseverance can be grown in students and in classrooms.

Teachers and school district leaders have taken to that idea. The challenge is trying to create an accurate way to measure it. And that’s given some educators cause for concern.

The Times writes:

“I do not think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea,” said Angela Duckworth, the MacArthur fellow who has done more than anyone to popularize social-emotional learning, making “grit” — the title of her book to be released in May — a buzzword in schools.

She resigned from the board of the group overseeing the California project, saying she could not support using the tests to evaluate school performance. Last spring, after attending a White House meeting on measuring social-emotional skills, she and a colleague wrote a paper warning that there were no reliable ways to do so. “Our working title was all measures suck, and they all suck in their own way,” she said.

• Why CA’s ‘Multilingual Education Act’ matters: Politics, language and Los Angeles’ future (LA School Report)

If you’re interested in English-learners, I suggest you follow Conor Williams’ work. He’s the best there is on the topic.

This week he’s got a new story about the Multilingual Education Act, a statewide measure that will be on the November ballot. He writes:

“In 1998, Californians anxious about a recent influx of immigrants passed Proposition 227, a ballot measure that mandated English immersion for nearly all of the states’ multilingual students. This year, as the country argues over whether to build a wall on our southern border, Californians will vote on the Multilingual Education Act, a new ballot initiative that would update and improve Prop. 227 by expanding the availability of bilingual education models (including popular dual-immersion programs) for English language learners.”

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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