Schools to stick with police surveillance

After spending the summer considering whether to hire armed guards to watch over some Costa Mesa schools, the school district has decided to stick with police officers — although fewer than in the past — according to school officials.

Supt. Fred Navarro said he wasn't aware of any other school district hiring year-round private armed security, adding, "I don't think it's something we want to be out on the forefront with."

Over the school break, Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials talked with two companies vying to provide that service in Costa Mesa.

"We did a lot of homework, and we spent our whole summer just really checking it out, talking with attorneys, checking with insurance," Navarro said.

Outsourcing would have served as a bridge of sorts while the Costa Mesa Police Department rebuilds its school resource officer, or SRO, program.

The SRO program provided police officers to Costa Mesa schools until it was discontinued last year. The program was revived with one part-time officer in the spring semester.

"I think everyone knew that Chief [Tom] Gazsi was limited on staff," Navarro said. "We were having a hard time staffing the SRO program because he has other competing needs."

What this year's SRO program will entail remains uncertain because the Police Department is still determining how many officers it can dedicate to schools in the fall.

A best-case scenario would be similar to last spring, one part-time SRO combined with increased patrols from other police employees, Gazsi said.

Two SRO positions are budgeted, however, and the program will be revamped as the department hires, Gazsi said.

At the end of July, CMPD was trying to fill 12 vacancies, according to the city's human resources department.

"We've had a history of SROs in the high schools and some junior high schools," Gazsi said. "As we restore staffing levels, it's my intent to bring back those positions in the future, as well as other specialty assignments that provide service to Costa Mesa."

The school district contracts with the cities of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa to provide SROs.

The Newport Beach Police Department dedicates two officers to schools and splits the cost of their compensation with the district, billing Newport-Mesa Unified about $170,000 last school year.

The 2011-12 school year was the last time the school district had an SRO contract with Costa Mesa.

In that agreement, Newport-Mesa Unified paid $180,000 for one SRO, the entirety of his compensation, according to school board documents.

Although direct cost comparisons were not done, Navarro said replacing Costa Mesa's SRO program with armed security could have been more expensive for the district.

The district would have had to pick up the tab for things like equipment and insurance in addition to the guard's compensation, according to the superintendent.

"Schools use private security for events, but when you're talking about children on a day-to-day basis, the story gets more complicated," he said.

School officials say they have been improving other security measures over the summer by installing silent alarms and automatically locking doors at some schools.

"The goal is for every campus to have those kinds of devices in place," Navarro said.

The measures are part of a security reevaluation the school board undertook in December after the Sandy Hook School shooting in Connecticut.

The district plans to meet with Costa Mesa city and police officials to hash out details of the SRO program before the school year begins Sept. 3, Navarro said.

"I feel comfortable knowing Chief Gazsi will figure out a way to make sure our schools will safe," he said.

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