Sergeant, there’s been an accident in the drop-off zone over at the middle school. No injuries, but the drivers are getting a little testy with each other, and we need an officer to keep things under control.
I’ll get someone out there just as soon…wait, school security is calling, they’ve got someone nearby and they’ll handle this one for us.
Direct access to police radios and an arrangement that lets the school system use their special security agents (who are off-duty sworn law enforcement officers) to handle some 911 calls is just one aspect of a strong collaborative relationship between Tucson’s Sunnyside Unified School District and local law enforcement, a relationship that earned the partnership a 2015 Exemplary School Safety Initiative Award from the School Safety Advocacy Council.
“The school district averages almost 10 calls to 911 every day, and all of them need to be followed up. We hire off-duty officers to work at the high schools, and if it’s something we can deal with right away, we send that officer and let the sergeant know that we have it,” says Frank Morales, the district’s director of security.
“Giving the schools full access to police radios, rather than only allowing them to use the radios to contact us in an emergency, is very unique,” says Sgt. Will Corrales of the Tucson Police Department. “If we need their assistance, they’re right there to respond, and it’s really great to have that capability.”
The strong partnership that allows the easy radio access and resulting support has been more than 20 years in the making. In October 1993, when a Desert View High School student was shot and killed on campus by another student who was on probation, school officials and local law enforcement saw the incident as a call to action. At a time when other school districts seemed reluctant to have a law enforcement presence on their campuses, Sunnyside started its long history of close collaboration with the Tucson Police Department, hiring off-duty police officers to become a part of daily campus life while the city added a police liaison on each campus to coordinate the off-duty police officers. At the same time, Morales became the first juvenile probation officer assigned directly to the district, adding another component to Sunnyside’s quest to end school violence on its campuses. He moved over to the school security director position when it was created in 2000.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time and we’ve reached the point where law enforcement feels comfortable sharing with us, and our students, families and teachers feel comfortable with what law enforcement is doing,” says Public Information Director Mary Veres. “In contrast, many of the school districts around us are struggling to relate with local law enforcement. That’s what caught the attention of SSAC and earned us the award.”
Morales says that Sunnyside reaches out to law enforcement in a variety of ways, such as inviting officers to dine with students and staff in school cafeterias and welcoming law enforcement recognition and promotion ceremonies to school facilities. When it comes to hiring off-duty officers to work special duty in the schools, the district looks for ties to the community in its selection process and places great emphasis on officers’ customer service skills. Morales checks in with Corrales frequently and spends time riding with him in his patrol car just to help him keep on top of things, which recently led to the two of them working together to help a lost child find her way home.
“Because officers are seen on campuses all the time, no one thinks their presence means something is wrong. They’ve developed positive community policing relationships and the community knows that law enforcement is here to help,” Veres says.
“At some point in almost everyone’s life, they will need law enforcement assistance, and we want them to feel comfortable with calling for that help when they need it,” Morales says. “We want them to know that law enforcement is here to help in any way they can. We emphasize customer service skills and we’ve kind of become a model for the rest of Tucson.”
Because of that positive relationship-building, when a student who knew Corrales well witnessed his father’s attempt to kill his mother, the sergeant was able to work with the boy to help him get through the crisis, and “we still have a positive relationship. These kids are growing up with a positive feeling about law enforcement, and we’re seeing it pay off. We don’t see the fights we used to see. We don’t see the violence we used to see.”
Veres adds that it isn’t just the boots on the ground that work together with the school district, it’s something that law enforcement leadership has also decided is important, and they’ve dedicated staff time to building the relationship: “Leadership on both sides has to be willing to invest time. That’s what we tell other school districts, that it has to come from the top.”
“It gives us an opportunity to put a face to law enforcement in schools, to build positive relationships with students, staff and the community, and to work on crime prevention,” Corrales says. The district and local law enforcement also work together on a series of safety drills and developed an emergency response plan and a discipline matrix together, an exercise that helped each better understand the other’s viewpoint and enabled them to work toward speaking the same language. In addition, 911 dispatchers provide training to school district operators on how to deal with angry parents and various crisis situations, which also helps improve communications and increase the common vocabulary.
“We’ve had some really good discussions, and now we’re reaping the positive rewards,” Veres says.
For more information on Sunnyside’s award-winning program, visit https://www.susd12.org/content/school-safety-conference, or contact Sunnyside School District Public Information Director Mary Veres at MaryVer@susd12.org or Capt. Bob Wilson of the Tucson Police Department at (520) 791-4949.
The Components of an Award Winner
Sunnyside Unified School District offers a number of resources to back up its award-winning partnership with local law enforcement, including:
Sunnyside Unified School District, located in Arizona’s Pima County, includes an early learning center, a 2-8 school, 12 elementary schools, three middle schools and three high schools, with a certified teaching staff of approximately 1,200 and a student body of around 17,400.