Tucson’s Hernandez wins de-escalation training for school cops

Alma Hernandez at the Arizona State Capitol, June 18 (Courtesy Hernandez)

Children and teens at public schools throughout the state will be safer thanks to the efforts of Rep. Alma Hernandez, Arizona’s first Jewish Latina lawmaker. Working with the office of Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, Hernandez, a Democrat, secured an agreement to begin mandatory training in de-escalation and crisis intervention for police who work on school campuses, known as school resource officers or SROs.

State Rep. Alma Hernandez, left, greets Gov. Doug Ducey at the Arizona State Capitol earlier this year. (Courtesy Alma Hernandez)

It’s an impressive achievement for a freshman legislator.

“This is one of my proudest accomplishments,” Hernandez, elected to the state house in November from the 3rd Legislative District, told the AJP, stressing that it is a bipartisan success. “This is an issue I’ve been working on since after the incident I suffered when I was 14 years old. So for the last 12 years I’ve been really hoping that no other child or teenager would have to go through what I went through. And part of that was being able to ensure that officers were properly trained to work with children and teenagers.”

As a student at Sunnyside High School, Hernandez was assaulted by two 19-year-old seniors outside the school, then “brutally attacked” by the SRO who intervened, she says. The SRO’s actions left her with spinal damage that continues to plague her.  She told this story on the campaign trail and included it on her “Alma for Arizona” biography page.

“I wake up every morning with it and I know why I’m in pain. It’s something that I’ll never forget but I have learned to forgive,” she says, adding that the incident is part of what drove her to be active in politics.

It was a tweet by Hernandez that caught the attention of the governor’s office, according to a report by Arizona Capitol Times.  Listening to Ducey’s State of the State address in January, she heard him call for more law enforcement at schools and tweeted that this was “NOT the solution” – more counselors, not cops, were needed, she said.

Hernandez was surprised when the governor’s office reached out to her, she told the AJP, adding that her initial suggestion was for all SROs to wear body cameras.  “We were able to compromise and come up with an agreement” for the mandatory training, she says, explaining that as part of the agreement, current SROs have up to a year to complete the training. Funding for the training comes from the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, which will receive an additional $1 million in appropriations from the governor, some of it earmarked for the de-escalation and crisis intervention training. In addition, the training will be offered regionally, Hernandez says, so that there will be no burden on officers to travel to Phoenix.

“Good ideas don’t have to be partisan. Our office was pleased to work with Rep. Alma Hernandez to advance this important training and ensure school resource officers have the tools needed to appropriately de-escalate situations.  Rep. Hernandez deserves a lot of credit for speaking up and leading to make this change happen — and we look forward to continued collaboration on commonsense issues like this,” says Patrick Ptak, spokesman for the governor.

Hernandez is still pushing for bodycams for SROs. The biggest expense, she says, would be storage of the video footage. “I’m still working with the governor’s office to make that possible,” she says, adding, “I think my situation would have been completely changed” if bodycams were in use when she was a Sunnyside student.

The new SRO training “is something that helps the entire community,” Hernandez emphasizes.  “This isn’t just about the south part of Tucson, or a specific school. This is really going to positively affect everyone throughout the state.”

Hernandez, a former coordinator of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Jewish Community Relations Council, “absolutely” sees this work as part of the Jewish mandate of tikkun olam, repairing the world.

“This helps restore some of the trust in the community toward law enforcement. We’ve seen so many incidents and issues happen over the years,” she says, noting that in some communities, people are wary of a law enforcement presence at schools.

“However, for parents to know that they are trained, hopefully will bring some peace to them,” says Hernandez, adding that it should also make it easier for faculty at schools “to work in harmony” with police officers.

“Working with JCRC at the Federation, we worked very closely with law enforcement. We know that they keep our community safe. For me it was really important to be able to do this and make sure that officers know I’m not against them, I’m not working to make their work more difficult. I support the work they do; I just wanted to make sure they are properly trained to work with young teens and with children. Police officers and law enforcement in general have been allies to the Jewish community and I appreciate that.”