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Escondido gets grant to police school smoking as critics sound criminalization alarm

ESCONDIDO — For city councils, passing items on a consent calendar generally denotes the subject at hand evokes little controversy and societal debate.

But on Jan. 16, the Escondido City Council voted on one item which, in particular among criminal justice reform advocates, sits at the center of the debate about policing, public schools, and the massive prison population in California and throughout the U.S. Items on the Consent Calendar are voted on as a single grouping, and in the case of the January 16 meeting, Item #5 received a vote alongside 13 other items.

Found on page 25 of the City Council’s more than 200 pages of documents for its meeting that day is a line item titled, “Fiscal Year 2018 California Department of Justice Tobacco Law Enforcement Grant Program and Budget Adjustment,” or a vote by the City Council to accept over $421,000 via the California Department of Justice under the banner of its Tobacco Grant Program. The money will put a police officer full-time in Escondido schools.

“The three-year grant will fund the salary and benefits of a full-time School Resource Officer,” reads the city of Escondido documents. “This officer will conduct educational classes for retailers, provide materials regarding laws and ordinances, and monitor underage tobacco usage at Escondido schools.”

Maurice Dyson, a law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, said he believes funding of this sort embodies what criminal justice reformers have decried as the problem of over-policing in California public schools. He believes the officer’s duties, in all likelihood, will stretch beyond merely interscholastic policing of tobacco products.

“The increased presence of school resource officers in schools only exacerbates the phenomenon since they are often placed in predominantly poor schools where low-income white students and students of color enroll,” Dyson said. “The officers are often improperly or inadequately trained as they often do not de-escalate conflict or work cooperatively with youth who are just young people struggling to fit in, contend with peer pressure and find their identity at an impressionable age. Instead what we often see are officers who are trained to see students as criminals, and consequently to treat them as such.”

The California program’s existence emanates from Proposition 56, or the California Healthcare, Research and Prevention Tobacco Tax Act, voted on and passed during the 2016 election. The law created a $2 increase for the sales tax generated via selling cigarettes and e-cigarettes in the state. That money, in turn, has begun to finance anti-tobacco educational efforts, as well as tobacco-related healthcare programs and research efforts throughout California.

And up to $48 million dollars from the Proposition 56 grant money pool “annually shall be used for the purpose of funding law enforcement efforts to reduce illegal sales of tobacco products, particularly illegal sales to minors,” the law reads. Of that, up to $30 million goes “to local law enforcement agencies to support and hire front-line law enforcement peace officers for programs, including, but not limited to, enforcement of state and local laws related to the illegal sales and marketing of tobacco to minors, and increasing investigative activities and compliance checks to reduce illegal sales of cigarettes and tobacco products to minors and youth,” the bill further details.

Escondido, alongside Carlsbad and San Marcos, all received grants from this pot of money for the 2018-2019 grant cycle.

“The Escondido Police Department will implement its Strategic Tobacco Operations Partnership (STOP) program,” reads a California Department of Justice Tobacco Grant Program awards summary document for the 2018-2019 grant cycle. “The program will hire a new school resource officer, conduct enforcement operations, provide education to students, educate store owners by providing trainings and educational materials and conduct education classes on school campuses.”

Dyson further explained that he believes bringing more police into a school context, even under the anti-tobacco public health framework, can lead to creation of what the scholarly community has conceptualized as the “school to prison pipeline.”

“This is a public health issue, not a criminal issue,” said Dyson. “The Department of Health, rather than the Department of Justice through school resource officers, should be intervening in ways that help youth to avoid smoking … Increased detentions, searches, ICE referrals, suspensions and expulsions are likely to result rather than stopping smoking and tobacco use.”

Dyson pointed to the Centers for Disease Control successful advertising campaign as an alternative to policing as a means of facilitating a societal anti-tobacco public health agenda. He said he believes California could follow suit, if it so desired.

Another organization pushing for an alternative model in San Diego, Mid-City CAN (Community Advocacy Network), successfully pushed for schools with in-school police officers to move away from a criminalization model and towards a restorative justice model. That years-long push led the San Diego Unified School District to sign onto a School Climate Bill of Rights in 2017.

“Our belief is that traditional policing methods have done more harm than good when seeking to address juvenile offenses, and that initial exposure to the justice system is what places youth on the school to prison pipeline,” explained Tareq Haidari, who works on the program for Mid-City CAN. “My hope is that the money is used to educate youth on the dangers of smoking, and not so much on taking harsh punitive measure to punish youth for possibly vaping or smoking on campus. The (Proposition 57) grants should be used for education and training, and not on over policing youth on campuses.”

Escondido City Councilwoman Consuelo Martinez, who also works at Mid-City CAN, denied comment for this story, saying she had yet to review documentation about the Proposition 57 funding stream.

To date, the Proposition 57 police funding mechanism has received little public backlash statewide.

But in at least one other California city, Piedmont, it has come under debate by concerned parents, leading to discussion about it at a recent City Council meeting. Residents there have launched a petition, spearheaded by the group Piedmont Appreciating Diversity Committee, calling for the prohibition of a school resource officer within the city’s schools.

“We are concerned about safety and the climate in our schools and do not believe an officer is the best fit for our community,” reads that petition. “There is no conclusive data that shows an armed officer creates a safer school environment and, in fact, many reports have concluded they often lead to greater harm than good including bodily harm to students, more arrests for minor incidences (sic) such as misconduct, and a negative effect on student culture and less trust among student and staff. We know the district can do better than to resort to the criminalization of our children.”

Piedmont’s city government, in response, has written in an official memorandum that it will exercise caution vetting the person it hires with the Proposition 57 grant funding. That memo also says that Piedmont will encourage school resource officers to use criminal law approaches to school disciplinary issues as a last resort only. The city’s school superintendent has also distributed a survey to parents to get feedback and thoughts on the presence of SROs in Piedmont schools.