Val Verde schools will launch its own police force


Students in one Riverside County school district will be seeing a new security presence on campus — its own police officers.

The change could happen within a year, when the Perris-based Val Verde Unified School District becomes the first in Riverside County to have its own police force. It will join four San Bernardino County school districts as the Inland area’s only school systems with police departments.

Val Verde already has its police chief on board after promoting Mark Clark, who had been its chief of security, to the new post in December.

For now, Clark, 42, is the lone member of the police department, which he estimates will take 12 to 18 months to get staffed and running with four officers.

More policing power

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Val Verde Unified School District Police Chief Mark Clark is sworn in by Riverside County school Superintendent Judy White at a December meeting.

Today the district — which has three high schools, four middle schools and 12 elementary schools with 20,000 students in Perris, Moreno Valley and unincorporated Riverside County — uses mainly security officers it hires to patrol schools. It also contracts with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department for four school resource officers, who provide security at schools.

The Val Verde school board voted 4-1 in November to form a police department, which would have the same law enforcement authority as any city police department — something security officers don’t have. The officers will be able to enforce local and state laws, carry weapons and make arrests.

Today, the district pays $700,000 annually to contract with the sheriff’s department and expects its police cost to be lower, though an exact figure was not available. Police officers will supplement the security officers.

Val Verde school board President Suzanne Stotlar said district officials have been pondering starting its own force for some time. The board had four town hall meetings, at which she said parents and staff came out in support.

With its own department, the district can better control and coordinate public safety, she said. For example, school resource officers can sometimes be called away outside the district, Stotlar said. The district covers three jurisdictions and having one police agency would be more efficient, she said.

“Our campuses are relatively quiet and safe and we want to make sure they stay that way,” Stotlar said.

Benefits, concerns seen

Though Val Verde will be the first school police force in Riverside County, it won’t be alone in the Inland area. In San Bernardino County, school districts in Fontana, Hesperia, Apple Valley and San Bernardino have their own police.

The San Bernardino City Unified School District began its police department in 1973 and now has 26 officers serving as “problem solvers, youth advocates, school and community liaisons, mentors, counselors, classroom instructors and positive role models for our 49,000 students,” spokeswoman Maria Garcia said.

In an email, school district Police Chief Joseph Paulino compared the district to a small city with specific needs.

“We have the level of service that we need, exactly when we need it,” he said.

Paulino noted that when a school shooting took place at North Park Elementary School in April, two officers and a sergeant who knew the campus well were the first on scene.

In a report on police presence at school campuses released a year-and-half-ago, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California put the number of school district police departments in California at 19.

The group opposes the practice, saying it has led to more arrests and citations for minor behavioral issues that might ordinarily be handled through detention or counseling. In San Bernardino, there were 30,000 student arrests between 2005 and 2014 for issues such as graffiti and curfew violations, a report by the Center for Public Integrity states.

“There’s just this escalation in the response to routine school behavior,” said Victor Leung, deputy director of advocacy for the ACLU of Southern California.

Leung said the group has seen graduation rates decline as a result of more students entering the criminal justice system. He suggests that schools invest in counselors instead of officers.

Going past punishment

Clark said he wants his officers to build relationships with students, parents and staff through positive reinforcement as opposed to policing with “a punishment aspect.”

“This is about working with kids,” said Clark, who worked for San Bernardino schools police for 18 years before joining Val Verde last year.

Clark said he’d like to take a community-oriented policing approach in which officers gets to know the people on their beat. He hopes to create a police explorer program where students can see police officers as mentors.

He cited his activity as a wrestling coach in San Bernardino for about a decade as an example. Clark, who is now head wrestling coach at Lakeside High School in Lake Elsinore, where he lives, hopes his officers will also be involved in similar extracurricular activities.

“I think it’s a better relationship with the students, staff and parents because they’re seeing the same (officers) year in and out and they’re part of the community,” he said. “They know you and that’s the relationship I want with these kids — they know all my officers by name.”



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