By Press Democrat
Staff Writer Julie Johnson
Piner High School students streamed by Santa Rosa Police Officer Amanda Cincera on Thursday while the uniformed school resource officer stood in a central open air courtyard during lunch as music pumped from a stereo.
A girl walked by and waved — “Hi, Officer Cincera!” They exchanged a few laughs as the student continued on to class.
The moment passed and would be unremarkable, apart from the fact that Cincera had arrested the teen three times for fights and hanging out with gang members, in violation of probation rules that prohibit her from doing so. The series of events brought Cincera, 41, and the teen closer together.
“Those are the kids I think we can help,” Cincera said, noting that she’s seen the girl make positive progress after her arrests. “She tried out for the volleyball team; isn’t that amazing?”
Cincera’s dealings on Piner’s campus Thursday were a study in contrast to a video of a classroom arrest in South Carolina that has gone viral, sparking a national conversation about police presence at schools.
The video depicts a white sheriff’s deputy flipping a black female student at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C., out of her classroom desk, then dragging and throwing her across the floor.
A fellow student took video of the incident on a cellphone. The footage has spread widely and called into question the role of police in noncriminal school disciplinary matters.
The deputy had been called to the room by school staff because the girl apparently refused to stop using her phone. The deputy, Ben Fields, was fired after county officials determined his actions were improper.
All Piner High School students asked about the video on campus Thursday said they had seen it on TV or Facebook.
“It was crazy,” said 16-year-old junior Daisha Moeai, who was sitting outside on a bench, waiting to retake an Algebra II test during a free period.
Moeai said she’s had few interactions with police but has a positive view of having an officer on campus.
“To me, I think it was racist and over there they have that,” she said, referring to the South’s long history of racial strife.
Around the corner behind a set of lockers, a 15-year-old named John stood with a group of fellow juniors.
“It’s f-ed up,” he said of the video.
John said that because he’s been arrested at school for marijuana possession, he does not like police and would prefer that an officer were not at school. The Press Democrat is withholding John’s last name because he has a juvenile criminal record.
“But some cops are cool,” he said.
While waiting for a ride home, Miguel Gonzalez, a 16-year-old sophomore, said he believes Cincera’s presence on campus prevents fights and other problems and he makes a point to say hello to her. Gonzalez said he’s never seen an encounter between police and a student like the one portrayed in the video.
“That’s, like, him abusing his power. He could have been calmer,” Gonzalez said. “I think that was a unique situation.”
Somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 law enforcement officers work in schools across the country, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers. The Alabama-based group has about 4,200 members and provides training for police heading into schools.
Santa Rosa police officers have been stationed at high school campuses off and on for at least two decades, with school liaison officers rotating through campuses or assigned to one depending on budgets and staffing. For at least six years, the Police Department has assigned one officer to each of the city’s five high school campuses.
Lt. Ron Nelson, who supervises the city’s school resource officers, said the job of an officer is the same on the street or at a school: Build relationships and enforce the law.
“It’s all one and the same. The policy doesn’t change; the concept of escalation and de-escalation remains the same,” Nelson said. “The overriding philosophy is that you’re only supposed to use force necessary to overcome resistance to effect an arrest.”
Santa Rosa officers attend a weeklong training held by the resource officers association before working in schools, Nelson said. He said he also took the training to learn about the work his officers do.
Although the principles of policing are the same, officers are taught to incorporate what they know about a person’s state of mind. For teenagers, that involves a still-developing brain.
“They spent a good deal of time on the physiology of the teen brain and how it’s not fully mature until age 21,” Nelson said. “Cognitive reasoning just isn’t there, and that’s why teens sometimes do goofy stuff.”
School resource officers start each day at the station with an early morning briefing before they fan out to their respective campuses. It’s a special assignment that gives the officers wide berth to craft the day as it evolves, depending on what issues surface.
Cincera had just barely sat down in her small, windowless office at Piner High on Thursday morning when she saw a student walk past and waved her inside.
Cincera shut the door and spent more than a half-hour talking with the teen. The student, a junior, talked through her difficult home situation, at times in tears, and tough decisions she’s facing about whether to seek emancipation from her parents.
“I know you; I know when you set your mind to do something you will do it,” Cincera said. “I just think you need to come up with a plan.”
By the end of the conversation, the girl was smiling and had a list of things to consider and do in her mind as she walked out the door.
Pinned to the wall of Cincera’s office is a panoramic image of Piner’s Class of 1992 — Cincera’s graduating class. Cincera said she became a police officer because of interactions she had with a school resource officer in the late 1990s when she worked in juvenile probation, and working in schools was her goal.
Cincera then was called across the hall into the office of Assistant Principal Amanda Correia, who was speaking with a father of a student who was missing.
“I last saw him yesterday at 7 o’clock in the morning, before school,” the man said. “I just want to know he’s OK.”
They pulled up the student’s Facebook page, looking for clues, and Cincera and Correia discussed tracking down the boy’s friends to find out what they knew about his whereabouts.
By noon, Cincera had consoled and consulted on a variety of issues, from missing students to marijuana possession.
She talked with Assistant Principal Ryan Thompson about a male student who was reportedly harassing a girl, who had asked school staff for help curbing his advances. Cincera recommended they write up a behavior contract with the student to set clear expectations for him and give him the opportunity to stop.
Back in the courtyard, Cincera took note of a group of boys.
“That’s a lot of blue,” she said under her breath, referring to the color associated with sureño gangs.
Cincera was standing at that very spot last school year when a girl came up to her and confided that she had been molested. Cincera said that over the four years she’s worked at Piner, six girls have made similar disclosures. Some have led to investigations, and in one case, the suspected perpetrator was arrested and currently is facing trial.
“Our title is school resource officer, and that’s genuinely what I want to be: a resource,” she said. “There are many days I don’t arrest anyone. I’m just counseling them, talking to them.”
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jjpressdem.