SUNNYSIDE — At the Monday, May 6, City Council workshop, an overview regarding the School Resource Officer (SRO) had the attention of council members.
There are criminal infractions in the schools, and the time officers spend responding to them, investigating them, writing reports and transporting juveniles to the Yakima County Juvenile Detention Center is significant, Police Chief Al Escalera said.
“It can take half a day,” he noted.
There is specific training necessary for investigating juvenile offenses, and he believes recent legislation regarding the training requirements died because of funding needed to support it.
The city and School District have a long-standing partnership regarding SROs. Before that partnership, Escalera said there was a high number of calls concerning criminal activity on school property.
The partnership, he said, enhances relationships. “We value that partnership.”
With SROs on campus, a level of trust and rapport is built between the officers, students, staff and parents, Escalera noted.
Cmdr. Scott Bailey added, saying there is an increased level of security measures at the schools.
Sunnyside School District Student Support Services Director Doug Rogers said there are more than 6700 students and 950 employees in the eight schools.
“It’s almost like a small city within the city,” he said.
Sunnyside High School Principal Ryan Maxwell chimed in, stating there have been gang issues, and about 10 years ago there were approximately 300 known gang members in the high school.
That number is much lower today, and he attributes it to the relationships SROs develop with students.
“The SROs are very busy, and not all work is in the field,” Maxwell said.
“Overall, the SROs provide a positive outlet for the kids,” he added.
Among the many responsibilities of the officers is crime prevention education, Escalera said.
The officers also familiarize themselves with the campuses, evacuation plans and security plans for lockouts, lockdowns and active threat/shooter procedures.
Having people who know the schools and procedures really well is a valuable tool, Escalera said.
For the past few years, the city and School District have split the cost of the SROs, which is approximately $275,000 for salaries, equipment and training, at or near 50/50.
The SROs are projected to have about 671 calls during the current school year.
Bailey said more students are believed to be reporting criminal activity due to the trust and rapport with the officers, and Rogers noted there has been an increase in the student population averaging 500 students annually.
Those factors are believed to contribute in an increase in the number of calls and investigations for the SROs.
Escalera emphasized the “unmeasurables,” stating there is “something significant” about what the officers mean to the students.
He compared the relationships developed to the relationships of beat cops on foot patrol.
Mayor Julia Hart commented, saying, “Wherever we can not be the enemy is good.”
School Board Director Sandra Linde was in the audience. She was invited to speak.
She said other cities are having budgetary issues and getting rid of their SRO programs. If the city of Sunnyside decides to do the same, she is hoping there will be a timely notice so the School District can develop a plan to compensate for the loss of the officers.
Shortly after, Councilman Ron Stremler chimed in, making it known he believes the School District should be paying 100 percent of the costs associated with the program, but “… would be willing to settle at 75 percent.”
He doesn’t believe the city benefits from the officers’ time.
Escalera, in response, said SROs do more than serve the school campuses. They respond when there is a school bus crash and are the front line when there is a threat in the area of schools.
“The workload will remain,” City Manager Martin Casey said, noting police officers would still need to respond to calls for service at schools whether they are on patrol or specifically assigned to the role of SRO.