As parents, law enforcement agencies, and elected officials grappled with the topic of armed law enforcement officers in Palm Springs Unified School District schools recently, a month-long review of relevant data by The Post shows students in the district are referred to law enforcement at levels far below the national average.
The same cannot be said at neighboring Desert Sands Unified School District, which not only had more than 3.5 times the referrals than PSUSD, but referred students at rates slightly greater than the national average. School administrators refer students to law enforcement officers when an issue may involve alleged criminal activity. A referral does not mean officers took any action or that charges were filed.
The latest complete set of nationwide data was reported by the U.S. Department of Education for the 2017-2018 school year. Locally, it shows the following:
- There were 3.5 times more referrals in the DSUSD than PSUSD in the school year examined — 130 total versus 37, respectively.
That volume equates to a referrals-per-thousand figure of 1.6 in PSUSD (64 percent lower than the national average of 4.5), and 4.8 in DSUSD (6.5 percent higher than the national average).
The Desert Sands district accounts for 78 percent of the student law enforcement referrals in the Coachella Valley, while the Palm Springs district accounts for 20 percent, and Coachella Valley Unified accounts for just two percent.
Why the difference? The Post attempted to speak with representatives from Desert Sands, but was unsuccessful. Palm Springs Unified staff said it may just be a matter of how incidents that could lead to a referral are handled by everyone from teachers, students, administrators, and law enforcement officers who are part of School Resource Office (SRO) programs.
Under the PSUSD program, one armed officer is assigned during the school day to each high school in the district. Both city police and Riverside County sheriffs deputies fill the roles, depending on the location of the high school. An additional 45 unarmed campus safety officers work on more than two dozen PSUSD campuses across 214 square miles.
The new school year began on August 4, but PSUSD just this week reached a tentative agreement to bring officers back to campuses. The delay led to accusations by some parents and law enforcement leaders that the district was trying to “defund the police.” PSUSD officials denied those claims, stating that negotiations with four separate jurisdictions was simply taking longer than they hoped.
“Our biggest thing is we want to make sure any contracts we engage in could be done with fidelity,” said Levaughn Smart, executive director of security and disaster preparedness in the PSUSD, during a phone interview August 16. “We want to make sure we all have a contract that we could stand behind, and that we had a contract that is good for staff, and also good for students.”
To date, Smart said, he sees no evidence the SRO program should not continue in the district.
“The program in and of itself is about relationships,” Smart explained. “It’s easier on everybody if you make relationships with the students. The parents and the community kind of wrap around the students. It’s everybody working together.”
Avoiding a referral is difficult, but not impossible. Weapons possession in PSUSD schools is a rare occurrence, a spokesperson said. And when weapons are brought to campus, the culture of trust that officers have built at schools helps prevent potential violence.
“Any situation with a weapon was averted specifically because there was a kid who had a relationship with a SRO or one of our security officers on campus and felt comfortable going to that person and telling them confidentially,” said Joan Boiko, coordinator of communications and community outreach. “That’s just something that doesn’t happen automatically.”
District administrators’ hands are tied, however, when drugs and alcohol are involved. Marijuana vape pens are especially popular, Smart said, but also especially difficult to deal with.
“We’re not chemists,” he noted. “So we don’t have a way to dispose of those … . Alcohol and drugs are not something we can deal with. We’ve had kids come to school drunk and try to get into a car. Something where they are putting themselves in jeopardy we have to have SRO intervene.”
Data supplied by PSUSD to The Post for the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 school years shows volumes similar to the 2017-2018 school year, with referrals-per-thousand rates averaging 1.85 — roughly 60 percent below the national average. During the past four school years, Rancho Mirage High School had four times more referrals (45 total) than any other school in the district. The next closest was Desert Hot Springs High School, with a total of 14.
Who are the students being referred to law enforcement? In both PSUSD and DSUSD, where Hispanic students comprise an average of 76 percent of the student population, they comprise the single largest group of referrals. The data from 2017-2018 shows:
- A total of 100 Hispanic students were referred to police between the two districts, equaling a referrals-per-thousand figure of 2.0 — 52 percent less than the national average for Hispanic students. They were 56 percent of the total referrals.
A total of 20 white students were referred to police between the two districts, equaling a referrals-per-thousand figure of 0.4 — 88 percent less than the national average for white students. They were 11 percent of the total referrals and comprise an average of 13.5 percent of the student population.
Taken as a percentage of the student population versus the percentage of referrals, there is some evidence of inequity for Black students and those with disabilities in the two districts. The data can be misleading, however, without additional context.
For example, students with disabilities — including those with developmental disorders and mental health issues — and Black students are referred to law enforcement at higher percentages than their portion of the student population at some Valley schools. The largest differences are found at Rancho Mirage High School, Raymond Cree Middle School, and Indio Middle School.
By volume, however, those schools referred an average of only three total Black students and students with disabilities during the school year examined. In addition, specialized programs for students with disabilities are sometimes concentrated at a single school site. That is the case at Raymond Cree Middle School, which hosts the Therapeutic Education Program (TEP) for all district middle schools.