2016-07-22 / Schools

Office of education answers grand jury report

Safety at Phoenix schools discussed
By Stephanie Sumell


ON CAMPUS—The Phoenix schools were the focus of a recent Ventura County grand jury investigation that looked at student and staff safety at its campuses in Camarillo and Moorpark. 
RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers ON CAMPUS—The Phoenix schools were the focus of a recent Ventura County grand jury investigation that looked at student and staff safety at its campuses in Camarillo and Moorpark. RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers Campus police officers have proved effective in keeping students and staff safer at schools across Ventura County.

That law-and-order approach, however, may do more harm than good at the county’s Phoenix schools, which serve students with serious emotional and behavioral issues.

The Ventura County Office of Education delivered that message to the Ventura County grand jury in response to a recent grand jury report suggesting that the largest Phoenix location, Phoenix- Airport in Camarillo, would benefit from a full-time resource officer.

It was one of a handful of recommendations the grand jury sent the office of education in April following an investigation on safety concerns at the Phoenix schools.

There are two Phoenix schools in Camarillo and one in Moorpark.

Together they serve about 135 students who are unable to learn in a traditional classroom setting. Many of them are dealing with issues like schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.

Students who act out impulsively or in frustration feel more comfortable in a structured classroom environment with a low student-to-teacher ratio.

Even with the extra attention, however, it is common for staff to call police to help when a student loses control.

Indeed, police answer two to three calls a week at the school on Airport Way.

Sparked by a “public complaint about safety in the Phoenix schools in Ventura County,” the grand jury launched an investigation into how campus security is handled.

“These are students with severe emotional disturbances that seemed very vulnerable to us,” Pamela Riss, the grand jury’s foreperson, told the Acorn. “We were also made aware that the sheriff’s office was being called to the campus (on Airport Way) quite frequently, and the combination of the two seemed to have the potential for the perfect storm.”

In its report, the grand jury said Phoenix staffers were “well-trained” in addressing and diffusing hostile behavior, but noted the high volume of calls made to the Camarillo Police Department by staff at the 75-student campus near the Camarillo Airport.

A full-time school resource officer at the Airport Way campus could help mentor students and assist staff during crises, the grand jury said.

It also said the relationship between the school district and Ventura County Sheriff’s Office could be stronger and advised the two to work more closely to improve police presence at Phoenix campuses.

The grand jury also suggested the sheriff’s office ensure all patrol officers who may be called to Phoenix schools undergo crisis-intervention training to better respond during campus conflicts.

Though acknowledging the report was well-intentioned, the county board of education’s response largely disputed the findings.

Roger Rice, the office of education’s deputy superintendent for student services, said it is important to understand that practices used in “mainstream” schools don’t always work with Phoenix students.

“No disrespect to the grand jury— they were very professional— but these schools are extremely unique and you can’t work with these students from a traditional perspective,” Rice told the Acorn. “A lot of the mental illnesses they have been diagnosed with result in assaultive behaviors and (issues with authority).

“The approach we have used,” Rice continued, “is through a very strong partnership with Ventura County Behavioral Health, laying on as much therapeutic support as we can and treating them with very targeted services.”

The office of education disagreed that the schools’ relationship with law enforcement is weak and bucked the grand jury’s advice to assign a school resource officer to the Airport Way campus. Instead, school officials said, students and staff would be better served if responding deputies are specially trained in handling violent outbursts by the students.

“The idea that the presence of law enforcement on campus would tend to de-escalate student behavior is simply not supported by research,” county school officials said in their response. “In fact, it is often the case that students with severe emotional disturbances are easily agitated and may be more oppositional in the face of authority than their more typical peers.”

Rice added that funding a full-time school resource officer is financially out of reach for the district.

“It’s really not financially sustainable to have a $200,000 officer at a school campus with 75 kids,” he said. “Even large, mainstream high schools struggle with the affordability of the law enforcement personnel and often will split the cost amongst multiple sites.”

Although the office of education disagreed with the majority of the grand jury’s observations and recommendations, it agreed to engage in “ongoing conversations” with the sheriff’s office to improve student safety.

The office of education said it is open to additional funding to promote school safety and improve police and teen rapport. It has also begun conversations with the sheriff’s office to determine if deputies responding to the campus need more training.

“If we could find a way with the sheriff to facilitate appropriate training for the officers so they better understand our kids, that’s great,” Rice told the Acorn. “We would certainly be open to that.”

While there are always opportunities for improvement, Rice said, he has a “great deal of confidence” in the Phoenix and Ventura County Behavioral Health staffers.

“They work well together,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to minimize the importance of protecting students and staff— that’s extremely critical— but we have the most highly trained people possible working with these kids.”

Riss said the grand jury cannot comment on the office of education’s response to its report.

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