The Santa Ana Unified School District board faced a packed house Tuesday, with a steady stream of local residents calling for a reshaping of student discipline in the wake of a controversial arrest of a 14-year-old boy.
Local students, parents and activists said the boy’s arrest in Adams Park was a wake-up call for the district and an opportunity for school officials to rethink their approach to student discipline.
“We are willing to work with you guys,” said Dulce Saavedra, a Santa Ana resident who attends Cal State Fullerton, who pointed to numerous parents and community organizations interested in reform.
Among the requests from speakers were limits to disciplining students for “willful defiance”; the establishment of a school climate committee; the creation of clear guidelines for police use of force; and posting school discipline policies online.
The reforms could be paid for through some of the upcoming infusion of cash to the district under the Local Control Funding Formula, they said.
The comments came as the school district’s police chief cleared his officer of wrongdoing in the arrest, in which the boy was apparently held in a headlock after marking a bench with graffiti and attempting to flee the scene.
“After a comprehensive review of witness statements, including what we saw on video, I have concluded that the level of force was consistent within our policy” and within the penal code and case law, said Police Chief Hector Rodriguez.
The boy “resisted the arrest, and an officer had to use what I consider at this point the lowest level of force,” he said.
(Click here to watch the video of the arrest.)
Several speakers were not satisfied.
“We just saw a police officer bully a young man,” local activist Albert Castillo told board members, adding that he couldn't find how much the district spends on its police department in the annual budget.
“Why are we paying for a school police force of this size, especially if what we saw in that video is the norm [for its officers]?” asked Carolyn Torres of the advocacy group Chicanos Unidos.
“Why is the safety of a park table more important than the safety of our youth?” Torres added.
Dolores Manzo said her young son was suspended for disrespecting his kindergarten teacher and asked that the district not make students feel as if they’re criminals.
Valley High School student Janelli Rosales called on district officials to limit discipline for “willful defiance” and instead embrace restorative justice programs.
Willful defiance discipline, zero tolerance policies and police in schools are all part of a “schools-to-prison pipiline,” said Cindy Cuevas, another Valley High School student.
“They undermine student achievement and graduate rates,” said Cuevas. “They negatively impact … all students. They discriminate against students of color, students with disabilities.”
Lysander Donavan, a member of a Santa Ana student rights group, said minor schoolyard altercations previously handled through mediation are now handled as criminal assaults, with students “losing their right to education.”
Bardis Vakili of the American Civil Liberties Union urged board members to give specific direction to officers about what interventions are appropriate in specific situations.
“Children make mistakes. It’s what they do,” said Vakili, adding that his organization helped Pasadena’s school district come up with an agreement delineating officers’ roles.
Pablo Jiminez, a 16-year-old student at Middle College High School, Santa Ana Unified’s highest-performing school, said the Adams Park arrest tapped into a “huge amount of distrust” between youth and authorities.
“I feel like it’s underestimated just how big the impact is,” Jiminez said.
Ben Vasquez, a teacher a Valley High School, told board members he was initially excited when he heard the district was adopting a new approach to discipline but said there has been a lack of follow through.
“You will get a check-off list that we are doing everything great, but it’s obvious today that we haven’t been doing everything great,” he told board members.
Laura Kanter with The Center OC, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights group, said many school discipline policies were based on a premise that brain development ended at age 3.
But from the last few decades of research from organizations such as the National Institute of Mental Health, Kanter said, scientists now know that the brain’s frontal lobe — which is associated with an ability to recognize the consequences of one’s actions — doesn’t finish developing until around age 25 or older.
Another resident, Thomas Gordon, had a different take on the Adams Park arrest, saying people were basing a lot of their opinions on emotion rather than facts.
Five full-time city employees clean up graffiti around Santa Ana, said Gordon, who invited residents to join a park cleanup day this Saturday at Delhi Park.
Following the comments, the school board’s president, Audrey Yamagata-Noji, didn’t address the reform requests nor schedule a discussion for a future meeting.
In an interview after the meeting, board member John Palacio said board members would review the comments and regroup.
That conversation would likely happen as board members discuss their Local Control Accountability Plan, which could provide funding for more restorative justice efforts, he said.
Restorative justice was a common theme at the 25 community engagement meetings around the local control plan, added Palacio. “It’s important that we hear the community and we respond accordingly,” he said.
He also pointed to existing programs at the district that divert kids from the criminal justice system and seek to provide individualized support for students with behavioral issues.
Positive behavioral intervention and supports has led to a “substantial reduction” in student discipline, Superintendent Rick Miller told board members.
“We can always learn to do things better,” board member Rob Richardson said after the meeting.