What are school safety officers and when do they have authority to shoot people?

It’s rare for the Long Beach Unified School District’s school safety officers to fire their guns, but when one of them did Monday afternoon, it had potentially deadly consequences—leaving an 18-year-old woman in critical condition at a local hospital.

And the shooting, captured on video that’s spread across social media, has brought newfound scrutiny to the small force of armed officers whose policies and procedures aren’t well known.

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The district’s school safety officers—also called SSOs—are armed, and their ranks include just nine full-time and two part-time officers, plus four supervisors, according to the district.

SSOs must complete a 664-hour course on Peace Officer Standards and Training, which is a state requirement for becoming a sworn peace officer in California. However, even with that training, they do not have the same powers as sworn peace officers such as police officers or sheriff’s deputies. Their scope of authority is more limited.

“SSOs don’t investigate crimes,” said LBUSD spokesperson Chris Eftychiou. “The police do that. SSOs do not arrest but can detain pending an investigation by law enforcement. Deadly force is allowed in self defense or in defense of others to prevent death and great bodily injury.”

Typically, Eftychiou said, SSOs, “assist with the more serious incidents that occur on or near campus involving our students or staff. They also assist and work with local law enforcement to maintain order and prevent criminal activity that may impact our schools. SSOs assigned to the high schools are also trained to respond to an active shooter incident.”

Using deadly force

Eftychiou said that the district does not publicly distribute SSO training materials “because they contain tactical information.”

But his description of when SSOs are allowed to use deadly force is more narrow than the Long Beach Police Department’s policy, which is available online.

LBPD authorizes its officers to use deadly force—including shooting at people—to stop an imminent threat but also to apprehend a fleeing felony suspect if they believe “that the person will cause death or serious bodily injury to another unless immediately apprehended.”

The LBPD also tightly restricts when officers can fire at moving vehicles, saying officers should avoid putting themselves in the path of a moving car and only fire on a moving vehicle “in the event of an imminent threat or immediate apprehension.”

It’s rare for an SSO to fire their guns, although one officer did accidentally discharge theirs on an empty campus during a training exercise in 2019.

Roles of SSOs

In practice, SSOs serve two main roles for high schools, according to two LBUSD administrators, who asked not to be named due to the ongoing investigation around Monday’s shooting. One role is that they often patrol the area around high schools when students are coming to or leaving class.

On the district’s job description for SSOs, the first listed example of duty is “Patrol District sites and adjacent areas to provide safety and protection for students, staff, equipment and property; assure compliance with applicable laws, codes, rules and regulations.”

Their other main function is to respond to calls for more serious incidents or concerns, such as a student bringing a gun to campus.

According to one Millikan employee who asked not to be named, it’s common for an SSO to be on patrol in the area off campus just north of the school, at Spring Street and Palo Verde Avenue where the shooting occurred. A large crowd of students typically flows in that direction when school gets out because of the bus stations located near that intersection.

In a letter to LBUSD parents and employees sent Tuesday afternoon, district superintendent Jill Baker said that the shooting on Monday “has greatly impacted our school district community, and we are collectively holding the shooting victim in our thoughts.”

Baker also said, “Our school safety officers are hired to protect the physical safety of our staff and students on and around campuses. They are highly trained and held accountable to the established standards in their profession. Those standards will be used to assess the incident that occurred yesterday.”

Black Lives Matter Long Beach has been one of the community groups requesting that the district eliminate or reduce its armed security staff, and redirect that money towards academic and social intervention and restorative justice programs. BLM LB speakers have made that request at several LBUSD Board of Education meetings over the last two years, either in person or via voicemail comment.

The bulk of the district’s campus security staff are unarmed campus staff assistants. These CSAs, known until recently as campus security officers or CSOs, are assigned to schools and work as part of school staff under the direction of that school’s principal.

“Their primary function is to monitor students on the campus and to assist the administrators in keeping order,” said Eftychiou. “They also staff the entrances to the high schools to prevent unauthorized entry. They can also intervene to stop students from engaging in fighting or other misbehavior.”

The CSAs have more specialized knowledge of a school since they are assigned to a specific campus. According to Eftychiou CSAs must complete a three-hour training course to work on campus, per state requirements.

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