Governor's Budget Puts More Cops in Schools, Which New Schools Chief Opposes

Gun-reform activists, like these demonstrators at the March for Our Lives in Phoenix on March 24, have campaigned against more school resource officers.
Gun-reform activists, like these demonstrators at the March for Our Lives in Phoenix on March 24, have campaigned against more school resource officers. Patrick Bryant
Governor Doug Ducey's proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year contains $9.3 million for a grant program that funds police officers in schools, a controversial priority opposed by student activists and the new superintendent of public instruction.

Students campaigning for gun reform with the March for Our Lives organization, immigrant-rights activists, and Arizona schools chief Kathy Hoffman all have criticized proposals to expand the use of school resource officers, or SROs.

School districts can apply for three-year state grant funding to pay for SROs, who are sworn law enforcement officers stationed on school grounds.

The new SRO funding in the budget is meant to meet the number of applications school districts submitted for officers during the most recent three-year funding cycle, boosting the number of SROs by 89 officers.

Ducey released his executive budget for fiscal year 2020 on Friday.

The new money for SROs fulfills one of Ducey's promises for school safety following the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead and 17 others injured.

Ducey's safety plan included a type of restraining order to remove a firearm from a potentially threatening individual, more funding for mental-health resources in schools, and $11 million to fund more SROs. However, the plan faced criticized from both sides of the aisle in the Legislature and never passed.

According to the governor's budget released on Friday, during the most recent SRO grant cycle, 203 schools applied for funding. Due to limited funding, only 114 schools received funding awards.

Activists, however, want to see the existing number of SROs reduced, not boosted.

Participants with March for Our Lives Arizona, a chapter of the organization formed by high schoolers who survived the Parkland shooting, said Ducey's plan was weak on gun-reform measures, such as improved background checks for weapons purchased at gun shows, and too reliant on SROs.

Meanwhile, the immigrant-rights organization Puente also has campaigned against SROs in schools. Activists in Puente's "Cops Outta Campus" campaign say that the presence of law enforcement is especially threatening for undocumented students, who risk deportation if they encounter law enforcement, and students of color, who face disproportionate discipline.

Recently, organizers with Puente demanded that the governing board of the Phoenix Union High School District phase out armed personnel on campus. Puente representatives did not immediately return a request for comment on the budget.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said during her campaign that schools should not add more SROs, arguing that more counselors and social workers are needed.

In a statement issued after the release of the budget, Hoffman did not mention the new dollars for SROs. She praised Ducey for putting $12 million toward school counselors and social workers over the next two years.

“The governor's proposed budget also invests in more school counselors and I applaud that decision," Hoffman said. "Well-trained and knowledgeable mental health experts are indispensable to a healthy and safe school environment."

When asked about Hoffman's position on the expansion of SROs, Arizona Department of Education spokesperson Richie Taylor wrote in an email, "The Superintendent supports an approach to school safety that focuses on increased funding for mental health services and more school counselors. She does not support the vision of having an SRO in every school."

Ducey's budget also calls for the Arizona Department of Education to open the application period for the next grant-funding cycle, which covers fiscal years 2021 to 2023, one year early as a "proactive measure" to prepare for the 2021 budget. (Some SROs serving in Arizona school districts are also sponsored by a federal grant program known as Community Oriented Policing Services, or C.O.P.S.)

The budget provides for a total of $12 million in mental health support: $6 million during fiscal year 2020, and another $6 million the following year doled out through a proposed SRO-style grant program. The money is expected to fund 112 positions each year. 

Ducey emphasized SROs during his State of the State address on Monday, pledging to bring his school safety plan back to the Legislature. The upcoming budget, Ducey said, would include "enough dollars to put a cop on every campus that needs one."

"We know when a police officer is around, it makes things safer. Who do we call whenever there’s trouble? Our brave men and women in blue," Ducey said. 
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty