Starting a School District Police Department from Scratch
Mark Clark has been named CS K-12 Director of the Year for his efforts in building Val Verde USD’s Police Department from the ground up.
Val Verde Unified School District (USD) of Perris, Calif., now has its own police department thanks to one-time director of safety and security, now Chief of Police Mark Clark, who has been honored as co-winner of the Campus Safety K-12 Director of the Year Award.
“There are so many things that he’s brought to our district,” says Executive Assistant to Superintendent Diana Ruppe, who nominated Clark. “I was really impressed with his dedication and his passion for public school safety. He has this overall determination to protect our students and our staff.”
Clark joined the school district in July 2016 after serving 19 years as a sergeant with the San Bernardino City Unified School District Police Department.
While in San Bernardino, Clark was responsible for 60 sworn and civilian employees. He received recognition as Officer of the Year in 2007, as well as a lifesaving award in 2014. He was also recognized for his bravery during the San Bernardino mass-shooting attack on Dec. 2, 2015.
Val Verde USD is comprised of approximately 20,100 students on 23 campuses, including four high schools, four middle schools, one preschool and one special education school. The rest are elementary schools. The district is heavily populated, with one rural pocket in Mead Valley.
“We are a very diverse population,” Clark says. “The district really puts a lot of work into education, and our graduation ratio is one of the highest in the state.”
Clark Envisions Change
Originally, as director of safety and security, Clark oversaw a department of 32 campus security officers. The district also contracted with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department for school resource officers (SROs). The school district has a “great relationship with the sheriff’s department,” states Clark, so the move to create a new police department had nothing to do with any dissatisfaction. The change was prompted more by the desire to have complete oversight and an expansion of services.
An example of the latter is the intention to build a law enforcement career track for interested Val Verde’s students.
“One of the things that bothered us was that we would go to events and see our students … doing cadet work with other agencies,” Clark notes. In the future, the school district hopes to nurture and retain some of some of this talent.
Another beneficial result will be marked savings and return on investment for the school district.
“Every year, the cost of the [SRO] contract goes up substantially,” says Ruppe. “Mark felt we can better serve the needs of our students and community by having our own police department at substantial cost savings.”
“We put together a cost analysis for a police department startup,” Clark explains. “We presented to the school board a number that was significantly less over a 10-year span, saving the district about $100,000.”
The creation of a district police department should also help with current officer coverage issues. Because of idiosyncrasies in the contract with the sheriff’s department, every other Friday two of the district’s campuses don’t have officers on patrol.
“Now we are going to be on a five-day week, eight-hour day schedule,” Clark says. “During the summer, we will still have our officers here. Right now we don’t have anybody. So, when we initially came in with the cost savings for the district, we could say that this estimate was for 12-month employees and not nine-month employees.”
The cost for officer training will also be reduced through the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) that sets minimum selection and training standards for California law enforcement. The POST program offers incentives to the participants, with one of these being a 90-percent reimbursement for training costs.
Community Buy-In Critical
The school board was impressed by the idea of its own police department, the oversight it could have and the significant cost savings.
The next step was to liaise with the community. Clark conducted a survey on whether local respondents favored the current program with SROs from the sheriff’s department, whether they felt an independent school district police department would be more beneficial, the possible drawbacks that might exist and the types of additional programs that might be advantageous.
“Overwhelmingly, when we got the surveys back, it was in favor of having our own police department,” he says.
Meetings were staged at key locations in the community to present the full concept.
“We covered every community organization, went out to speak to any and all parents who wanted to hear about the police department and showed them the cost breakdown,” Clark recalls. He also brought in SROs from other school police departments to talk about their experiences.
In November 2017, the school board approved the new department, and Clark was sworn in as chief. Since then, an oversight committee has formed that consists of school board members, local denizens, high school student representatives, the district supervisor and Clark.
“Every month, we discuss recent issues and proposals that the committee would like to see enacted,” he says. “Those ideas are then brought to the school board so they can vote on policy.”
“We couldn’t be more excited and to have the community support,” says Superintendent Michael R. McCormick. “For us, it was really about creating a deeper partnership with our students and our communities.”
Department Adds Sworn, Armed Officers
The new police department will retain the 32 nonsworn and unarmed campus security officers now on staff and see the addition of 14 sworn and armed police officers. Clark says that the district is looking for officers with school policing experience, rather than those who have only worked in municipalities.
The new department’s pay scale is comparable to other agencies, but because the job market is so hungry for police officers, finding qualified applicants has been tough, he says. The agency is small and new, so there is some fear among candidates that it might not last. Some potential applicants want to see it succeed before leaving their current police department.
While other agencies may sweeten the pot with added incentives to attract and retain officers, Clark views work/life balance as Val Verde USD PD’s biggest enticement.