Back to school

Chico police return to schools to focus on tobacco, safety

Sgt. Mike Williams on his third day as a school resource officer at Pleasant Valley High School.

Sgt. Mike Williams on his third day as a school resource officer at Pleasant Valley High School.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Cost breakdown:
• Sgt. Mike Williams: $93,611 (plus $70,072 in benefits).
• Officers Peter Durfee and Carlos Jauregui: $72,896 each (plus $57,537 in benefits).
• Grant coordinator Gary Story: $34,971 (plus $15,754 in benefits)
• Intervention Specialist: $40,320 (benefits included).
• The grant budgets up to 200 hours of overtime/year for code enforcement and after-hours events
• Fully funded by a $1.5 million California Department of Justice Tobacco Law Enforcement Grant.

It’s only the afternoon of Sgt. Mike Williams’ third day of school, and he’s had to investigate an assault, handle a probation violation and take down a report of possible child neglect.

The Chico police school resource officer told the CN&R he’s definitely not complaining about being busy—he’s grateful that students and staff members at Pleasant Valley High School already seem comfortable working with him.

For a case of a student who shoved a staff member, “ultimately it came down to, ‘You’ve got to act appropriately on campus [to keep everyone safe],’” Williams said. Before the student was dismissed for the day, the pair shook hands.

“A lot of issues we can handle informally,” he added. “It doesn’t necessarily need to go down a criminal route.”

There haven’t been dedicated officers on Chico Unified School District campuses for six years. This fall, there will be three, one at each high school—Officers Peter Durfee and Carlos Jauregui, along with Williams, who also will serve as the team’s supervisor. They’ll have more casual uniforms, and be outfitted with bulletproof vests, guns and batons.

Their primary goal is to focus on tobacco-related education and enforcement. That’s because this venture is fully funded by a $1.5 million Tobacco Law Enforcement grant from the California Department of Justice. Two more officers will be added next year, to support the elementary and middle schools. The grant also funds a CUSD coordinator and intervention specialist. (The school district can apply for a three-year grant extension when it expires in June 2020.)

The money comes from tobacco users: Proposition 56, passed in 2016, raised the tax on cigarette and nicotine products, with a portion of the revenue, $30 million annually, directed to the Department of Justice.

Throughout the school year, officers will focus on providing training for school staff on the latest regulations and products (like JUUL e-cigarettes), holding classroom presentations for students and enforcing state and local laws regarding sales and marketing of tobacco products to minors. Williams said the officers are working diligently with the school district to develop curriculum this year tailored to high-school-age kids.

According to the 2017 Healthy Kids survey, conducted by the California Department of Education, e-cigarettes are the most popular products used by young people. In Chico, 17 percent of ninth-graders have used electronic cigarettes and 8 percent of 11th-graders define themselves as current e-cigarette users.

At Fair View High School, a campus for students with academic or behavioral difficulties, those rates are much higher: 54 percent of students have used e-cigs, and 26 percent are current e-cig users.

Pleasant Valley Principal John Shepherdhas noticed a tremendous increase in the use of vaping since e-cigarettes were developed. He’s worked at PV for 21 years, serving as principal for the past decade.

It has been difficult for staff to combat tobacco product marketing that can be enticing for young people, he told the CN&R. The district has concerns about the accessibility of the products, as well. According to a city staff report, there are 95 licensed tobacco retailers in Chico. Ten schools, or 35 percent, are within 500 feet of such a retailer, and 16 schools (57 percent) are within 1,000 feet.

When resource officers were on campuses six years ago, their main focus was more reactive, he said. This time, there’s a stronger proactive emphasis on prevention and intervention, particularly when it comes to vaping.

“Having that be the impetus for the placement of school resource officers has really changed the paradigm,” Shepherd said. “It’s nice for us to be able to present the school resource officers in that light, rather than a security force.”

The grant also will fund 78 smoke and vapor detectors for restrooms at all three high schools. Coupled with the education and enforcement efforts of the resource officers and the education and outreach provided by the district’s current Tobacco Use Prevention Grant, the school district hopes to drastically reduce or eliminate tobacco use.

“Raising students’ awareness, the prevention/intervention focus is going to be valuable.” he said. “It’s not just [officers] walking around in their badge and their belt, but engaging with kids in an educational setting.”

If the tobacco grant hadn’t been approved for CUSD, resource officers would still have been present on campus, though to a lesser degree. The district and police department had agreed to share costs of two officers. The money set aside by the city has yet to be reallocated.

Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien said the police department worked with the school district to select officers suited for this type of assignment because they really want to help students.

This is a completely different assignment for Williams, who previously served as part of the department’s street crimes unit.

“Usually we’re on the street, people are in crisis, they need us there and it’s traumatic. You’re more reactionary and you’re just [responding] to one call and going to the next,” he said. “Here in the schools, you’re dealing with kids at such an influential time in their lives.”

Williams sees his role as “being that constant mentor for these kids … guiding them [in] those right directions, making sure they’re not making poor choices,” and fostering a safe school environment.