The Robstown school board created an advisory committee Monday night to guide the board in the resurrection of a district-wide police force in the aftermath of the fledging department's demise.
The board voted 4-2 to create the advisory committee and allow board president Rosendo Espinoza to appoint its members, despite some objections from board members who said the committee was created in an "undemocratic" manner.
Espinoza and board members Richard Gonzalez and Victor and Eva Orona voted in favor of creating the advisory committee, while board members Adolfo Lopez and Roberto Tapia voted against it.
Board member Jerry Gonzalez was absent from Monday's special meeting.
Victor Orona acknowledged there have been well-publicized problems with the police force created in July, but he encouraged other board members to come together, attend an open house, and stop "bad-mouthing or badgering the superintendent."
"We've been through a lot of negative news, a lot of negative media," Victor Orona said, asking other board members to attend the upcoming open house. "This is one way we can get over this hurdle. This is one way to prove we want to work together."
Tapia said he wanted to know the names of the people to be appointed to the committee before voting to create it.
Espinoza said, as school board president, he has the authority to appoint advisory committee members, once the school board authorizes a committee.
Tapia agreed that Espinoza had the authority, but he asked Espinoza to "work together."
"Let's take a leap here," Tapia said. "Show we can work together. I would hate to vote on something before knowing who is on the committee. It's undemocratic."
Gonzalez also said he wanted to know the names of the prospective members of the committee, but he ultimately voted in favor of creating the committee without being informed of its potential members.
"Can we ask who they are now?" Gonzalez asked. "I want to make sure we have people who know what a police agency is all about. You're asking me to vote on something before I know what it is.
"Everyone here is concerned about the safety of our students, but I want to make sure we go about it the right way. We need to make sure we have capable people on that list. That is my concern."
"So you don't trust Mr. Espinoza?" Victor Orona asked.
Lopez also said he wanted to know the names of the prospective members to ensure the advisory committee had "equal representations."
"There's people out there that don't approve of the police agency, and then there's some that do," Lopez said. "I'd sure like to know who the committee is made up before I approve it. It's just like voting on a blank check. I'm not going to support signing a blank check.
"When are we going to start working together? We are getting left out all the time. We want to have some say in this. I would like to serve on that committee, I really would."
Lopez said he remained opposed to the creation of the school district police force, saying he did not want police to "handcuff, threaten or harm" students.
"I am concerned about people roaming around our campuses with a gun," Lopez said.
The school district's police officers were certified to make arrests and carry weapons.
After the vote, Espinoza read aloud 13 names of the people he planned to invite to serve on the committee. He later said he could not release their names, since they had not all yet been asked to serve.
Espinoza said that board members Victor Orona and Richard Gonzalez and one other board member to be selected would be appointed to serve on the committee. Espinoza and Superintendent Roberto Garcia were appointed as ex officio members, meaning they may not vote if the committee were to cast votes, which Espinoza said it would not.
The rest of the advisory committee will be comprised of business leaders, community members, law enforcement, a PTA member and a high school student, Espinoza said.
Espinoza said he hoped to have the school district's police force reconstituted in a month or two.
"It's up to the committee," he said, "but as soon as possible."
The school board narrowly approved the creation of the school district's own three-to-four person police force, with a $125,000 budget, at a special meeting July 3. Garcia said the school district needed its own certified police officers to curtail drug possession in schools and enhance student safety with quicker police responses.
Some school board members objected to the pace of the creation of the RISD police department.
Lopez said he wanted the school board to conduct a workshop and draft a memo of understanding with other policing agencies prior to the creation of the school district's own police force.
"Instead, we voted on it," Lopez said. "And what did we have? Nothing but problems. Obviously, what we did in the beginning, people know this of course, it did not work."
Garcia defended the charge several school board members have made that the police force was created hastily.
"All policies and procedures in establishing the police department were followed," Garcia told the newspaper. "Mistakes were made by employees that were hard to retract."
The school district had used a mix of security personnel who were either district employees, or security guards from Accident Reconstruction, with whom the district had an $84,000 annual security contract before creating its own police force.
Since the authorization of a bona fide police department in July, allegations of police abuse have emerged, including the alleged strip-searching of a 12-year-old Seale Junior High School girl in late September.
Newly hired police officer Jessica Cantu was suspended with pay and subsequently terminated after an investigation found that she had the girl remove her pants and blouse while investigating a report of the girl possessing matches.
Garcia said Cantu and other Robstown ISD police officers had the authority to conduct searches of students, but he said he felt the search of the girl was over-intrusive since it involved matches, and not drugs or weapons.
Cantu denied to school officials that she conducted any kind of strip search, Garcia said. However, another security officer, Irma Hernandez, said she witnessed the alleged strip search and the investigation found that Cantu did ask the girl to remove her clothing, Garcia said.
A security officer, not a certified police officer, was also suspended in late September after an allegation that she slapped a 15-year-old high school student during an incident in the school's quadrangle.
Garcia said an investigation found that there was no evidence that RISD security guard Elizabeth Ortegon slapped the girl, but that Ortegon was trying to hold the 15-year-old girl back during a verbal confrontation with another student.
Ortegon, a 13-year employee of RISD who was suspended with pay shortly after the allegation came to light, was reinstated as a security guard, Garcia said.
Newly hired police chief Jesse Garcia resigned about two weeks ago, citing personal reasons.
Jesse Garcia's resignation and Cantu's termination effectively eliminated the school district's police department. The school board had authorized the administration to hire up to four certified police officers, but only Cantu and Garcia had been hired before the allegations emerged.
Robstown police and officers from the local constable's office are being hired to provide campus security since the school district has no police officers, Garcia said.
Two officers are assigned to the high school, one to the junior high, and one at the Alternative Learning Center.
"Our next step is to form a committee," Garcia told the newspaper. "Our students are safe. We're getting help from the constable and police department and we have new certified security guards."
Two other school district employees, including an assistant principal, were suspended for allegedly releasing confidential information to the public about the alleged strip search.
Hernandez submitted a report about the incident, but the report did not go through proper channels, Garcia said.
Instead, Hernandez's report was obtained by Adrian Guererro, assistant principal at Ortiz Intermediate School, Garcia said.
Guererro gave it to Mauro Garza, a high school truant officer, Garcia said.
Hernandez's report was unknown to exist until a "citizen" brought it to the administration's attention Sept. 28, Garcia said.
Garcia said Guerrero and Garza were suspended for "improper distribution of a school investigative document concerning a minor student."
Guererro was suspended with pay Oct. 1 and Garza was suspended with pay Oct. 4. Garza's suspension was changed to without pay Oct. 15 and Garza was terminated Oct. 10.
The suspensions are indefinite until the conclusion of investigation, Garcia said.