Youth Policing in Question After Balboa High Gun Lockdown

Critics say the police unnecessarily traumatized three students arrested but not charged for the firing of a gun on campus.

San Francisco Police and SF United School District officials congregate after a report of gunfire at Balboa High School on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Calls for an overhaul of San Francisco police procedures toward youth reverberated at a hearing on Wednesday, called after the gun incident at Balboa High School.

The arrest of three students in relation to a gun that was fired in a Balboa High School classroom in August has led city officials to question of how police treat youth accused of a crime. In the wake of the incident only one student was actually charged with possession and negligent discharge of a firearm, the Examiner reported.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen called the hearing after Robert Pena, a school district employee of two decades and father to one of the arrested students who was detained but not charged, criticized school officials for not following policy during the incident. Pena says he was not aware his son was detained for about 45 minutes, despite being on campus as police secured suspects during the lockdown.

As his son was being transported to a nearby police station, officers took him out in full view of the public and press for a crime he was not ultimately charged with. Police Cmdr. David Lazar did not offer facts of the incident, including what may have been gleaned from the body camera footage, while at the Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee.

“It really upsets me that this young person was paraded in front of the press,” Ronen told Lazar. “I’m not even necessarily criticizing the decision they make if I understand the decision they make. It feels like there could have been more info about this today.”

But Lazar felt the San Francisco Police Department did a great job at working with the school district and avoiding catastrophe. He said the teenagers at the station were not questioned in any way and that there’s no documentation to show that.

“W could always evaluate and assess about how we can do things better,” Commander David Lazar. “However, we were very proud.”

The Memorandum of Understanding between police and the San Francisco Unified School District stipulates that officers should consider the reasonableness of making an arrest on campus, which can disrupt their learning environment and cause trauma. Upon arrest, a parent or guardian must be immediately notified, which Pena says did not occur even as he was on campus.

The agreement happens to expire in January, which prompted calls for a dramatic rethinking of its policies. Some offered by officials were to differentiate between an active shooter response and other responses, clarify the timeline of notifying parents,  adding explicit language to have agencies share information, and set up a process to remove material posted to social media.

Another policing procedure is the ability for 16 and 17-year-olds to waive their right to have a parent, guardian, or public defender by their side.  Ronen, citing growing research about the undeveloped parts of the teenaged brain, said that represented a gap in needed policy.

Members of the public who commented seconded that idea and the need to train officers to deal with the youth in a different way before traumatizing them with escalation. Pena said officers should have at least told his son to look down but “instead they were high-fiving each other, congratulating each other on the work they had done.

“It’s not about trying to save your image because a hearing has been called,” Pena said before the committee. “Please review the policies.”

After coming back to the podium, Lazar said that he heard the public loud and clear that trust is needed with the police. Ronen, Lazar and the Pena family indicated they would meet to clear up the timeline and decision-making process.

“I just want to apologize to you for this incredibly traumatic experience and tell you how much I feel for you as a parent,” Ronen said to Pena. “I cannot believe that was allowed to happen.”

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