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Put cops back in Santa Rosa schools

Santa Rosa, it’s time to talk.

Again. Sonoma County’s largest city, its school district, students and parents have periodically debated whether police belong on campus for nearly three decades. For most of that time, cops stayed in local schools.

They’ve been gone since 2020 at the direction of the Santa Rosa school board. After a 16-year-old Montgomery High School student died from stab wounds suffered in a fight last week, some classmates are demanding to know why police are no longer assigned to secondary schools in Santa Rosa.

“Who keeps us safe?” students chanted during a demonstration Monday at Montgomery.

Expect that to be a prime topic Tuesday at the school district’s “listening session.”

Going forward, the school board should keep listening.

Parents and students expect school to be a safe place. Sure, there will be vandalism and petty crime. That’s a nuisance. Deadly violence, a Montgomery student armed with a knife, a gun seized at Maria Carrillo High. That’s a red alert for school officials.

We’d hate to see metal detectors at school entrances, but Santa Rosa schools need better safety protocols — including a return of school resource officers.

Police first approached the school board in 1995, seeking to share costs for a “Cops on Campus” program. The Santa Rosa school board said no.

A scaled-back program started the following year, with a $100,000 state grant paying for one officer who split time between Santa Rosa High and Santa Rosa Junior High.

Ten years later, with two officers assigned to secondary schools, the school board asked the city to pay for a third. This time, the city said no.

Still, police remained on campus until 2020, when the school board voted unanimously to suspend the program soon after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. Floyd’s death set off a summer of protests across the country, accompanied by debates about policing.

In Santa Rosa, the decision to eliminate school resource officers wasn’t without controversy. A 32-member committee appointed by the school board recommended restoration of the program with modifications. The board didn’t listen.

If board members want students to feel safe, revisiting the committee’s recommendations would be a good first step.

Bringing back resource officers won’t prevent every bad thing that can happen at school. Officers typically patrol several campuses and can’t be everywhere at once. However, they can be role models, assist with dispute resolution and help improve police-community relations.

We recognize that school resource officer programs aren’t without flaws. In a 2020 survey of Santa Rosa students, 8% reported negative experiences with the program. On a national level, researchers have found that Black students are more likely to be arrested or disciplined than their white peers.

But the school board can work with parents and students, police and scholars to tailor a program for Santa Rosa. Perhaps officers could dress more casually, and restorative justices could be emphasized for nonviolent crime. Revisit the program on a regular basis and adjust it if necessary.

Santa Rosa school officials have a willing ally in Police Chief John Cregan, and students seem eager to see officers back on campus. What are we waiting for?

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