By the Daily Post staff
Los Altos City Council voted unanimously this morning to eliminate a program that sends a police officers into Los Altos High School after hearing complaints that the cops mistreat minority students, creating an atmosphere of fear.
The council vote came at 1:33 a.m. following a public hearing during which 52 people spoke via the Zoom platform. All but a handful favored eliminating the officers.
Council also agreed to set up a program that will allow the public to submit complaints about police officers to an independent third-party instead of filling out a form at the Police Department, which some people found to be intimidating. Police will also be encouraged to give people they come into contact with a brochure or business card that explains how they can lodge a complaint.
Most of the focus of the hourslong hearing was on the school resource officer, or SRO, program, which has existed for 35 years. Councilwoman Neysa Fligor said that whatever the goals of the SRO program were, they’re not being met today.
During the public hearing, there was some disagreement among speakers about how many students had been mistreated by SRO officers.
“Even if there are just 10 students who are negatively affected, we can’t turn a deaf ear to them,” Fligor said.
The council decided to eliminate the SRO program by the end of the current academic year and form a committee with high school district trustees to discuss an alternate program. Some members of the audience suggested taking the funding for the SRO program and put it into a mental health program for students.
The council vote this morning was based on recommendations of a Citizens Police Task Force council created following the outcry over the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The task force included co-chairwomen Fligor and Mayor Jan Pepper.
Retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell has been providing advice to the effort. Cordell has previously served as the police auditor in San Jose, investigating complaints against officers in that city.
Before the council meeting, 2015 Los Altos High School alumnus Kiyoshi Taylor told the Post he used to be regularly harassed, followed to his car and questioned randomly by police on campus during his time as a student at the school. He said he doesn’t want the police on campus.
“We need better counselors, we need better therapists, we need trained professionals without a badge and a gun — and not a police officer,” Kiyoshi, 23, said, and added that he had incidents both on and off campus with police that led him to support taking them out of schools.
“They constantly pull other black people over, other brown people over, for seemingly no reason and they expect us to trust them,” he said.
Taylor said has been stopped riding or walking his bike by officers who wanted to know why he wasn’t wearing a helmet or to ask where he was going, once even while another white bicyclist passed by them unbothered. But officers never had a real reason to issue him a citation on campus because he was never cited, he said. And he said black and brown students already live with a fear of armed officers because of a history of racism and killings by police throughout the country to this day, which makes them feel unsafe around cops on campus.
The city currently defines campus officers as a “a liaison position between local schools and the police department,” according to Deputy City Manager Jon Maginot’s report on the task force to the council. His report also said campus cops are supposed to serve as a law enforcement officer, a counselor and an educator who is also trained as a certified drug abuse prevention instructor.
And the SRO officer is supposed to prevent cyber bullying and to drive students to a mental health facility instead of juvenile hall.
These officers are also supposed to train school employee on how to respond to a campus threat, such as a school shooter.
Los Altos Police Chief Andy Galea told the council the police department had not received any complaints of problems between students and SRO officers. His comment was in response to Councilwoman Lynette Lee Eng, who asked if they had gotten any complaints. He said “actually I think it’s quite the opposite” and added that his officers receive their fair share of compliments.
But Seth Donnelly, a teacher for more than 20 years at Los Altos High School, told the Post that 800 students, alumni and other residents signed a petition asking the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District to remove the officers.
The petition also asks for all incoming freshman to undergo required ethnic studies their first year in high school, that all departments produce reports after each semester detailing their plans to “uproot blatant and subtle forms of racism” in their curriculum. It also asks for anti-bias training for district employees and school board members every semester, changes to disciplinary procedures and calls for further counseling services.
“The argument that we’re making isn’t about individual SROs,” Donnelly said. “Just having that institution (police) on campus creates stress, anxiety and pain.”
He said Taylor is not the only black student who’s walked the school’s halls and had a bad experience with an officer on campus.
“We see clear evidence of harm,” Donnelly said. “I’m not aware of any major benefits in keeping SROs on campus.”
Like Taylor, he would rather see the city or school district pay to hire more trained mental health professionals for students to use as resources for their problems than a uniformed and armed officer. He added the school’s unarmed security officers do “a great job” with other matters that might not be handled by counselors or therapists already. And he called the task force’s recommendation to remove SROs “a major development.”
“Our position is we don’t need to be having the police on our campus,” Donnelly said. “We’re hopeful that the city will take seriously the recommendation of the task force that it created.”