Long Beach could be expanding a program that works to ensure students at city schools are able to safely get to and from campus, but how it will do that, and whether police or volunteers will lead that effort, has not been decided.

The Safe Passage Program has been operated by the Long Beach Police Department for almost 20 years and has provided a presence near schools to try to decrease fights and other illegal activity for some area schools. The program is also cited by the city as an intervention to prevent youth from joining gangs.

The Health and Human Services Department has also created a program that uses “peacekeepers” to accomplish the same at Washington Middle School.

The City Council may now review new options to expand the program, which could include more police, paid volunteers or a hybrid approach that could cost nearly $400,000 per school site, according to a city memo.

Schools that could be included in the expansion include two middle schools, Lindbergh and Franklin, and two high schools, Poly and Jordan, with two additional middle schools that could be added based on community input.

Councilmember Al Austin asked in June that the city look at options to keep students safe after a high-profile attack on a high school student in North Long Beach. After reviewing the memo, Austin said the intent of his request was to allow community leaders and neighborhood associations to form their own safety units—but that appears to be missing from the options.

“It’s really all of our responsibility as adults to be taking care of our young children,” Austin said, adding that he would like to have that option included before a full council discussion.

The three options include a police-driven model where officers would be paid overtime to be present at the selected schools for one hour (7 to 8 a.m.) before school and three hours (1 to 4 p.m.) after school lets out.

The memo said that option would cost about $154,000 to provide coverage during the school week at five schools for 180 days.

A Health Department led program would use a third-party vendor to coordinate paid volunteers to accomplish a similar mission while also providing after-school activities and other support for student well-being, according to the memo. That option would cost about $242,000 per school site.

The third option would combine the two in a hybrid model that would use paid volunteers to walk the school routes while officers monitor the locations before and after school. This is projected to be the most expensive option with the city projecting a cost of about $397,000 per site.

Austin said he’s sensitive to community concerns of over-policing students, especially after an 18-year-old woman was fatally shot in the head by a school police officer last year after a fight near Millikan High School, but said that if the money was available, the hybrid approach seems like the best option.

“Anytime you think of safety you have to include the police department,” Austin said, suggesting the police could help develop the model and community stakeholders like businesses and residents could help implement it. “I’m looking at a holistic approach.”

Finding funding for either option could be tough. The Health Department is expected to use grant funding and federal recovery funding to help finance some of the program’s costs but additional funding would be needed to pay for any overages.

While originally optimistic about next year’s budget deficit, city officials are now anticipating that the deficit for next year, which is currently about $28 million, is going to grow to as much as $40 million after the City Council approves new contracts for the city’s police and firefighters.

The council is expected to vote on the new three-year agreement with the Long Beach Firefighters Association Tuesday night, which is anticipated to cost the city an additional $14 million over the next three years.

It’s unclear when the full council will discuss the issue but implementation of the plan is expected to start in January 2023, according to the memo.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.