LANCASTER — A record number of people submitted public comments for the Antelope Valley Union High School District Board of Education’s special virtual meeting on Saturday afternoon when the Board approved a contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to bring a limited number of school resource deputies back to campuses through the end of the school year.

The Board received 118 comments in the two-hour window to submit comments prior to the start of the meeting, according to a District official. That is a record for any meeting and an astonishing number considering the Board announced the special meeting 4 p.m. meeting the day prior.

The Board voted 4-0 to approve the contract, which is good through June 30, for an amount not to exceed $150,000. Board member Victoria Ruffin did not attend the virtual meeting.

The contract calls for one school resource officer team lead and up to four school resource deputies for four days a week when students are on campus.

The Cancel the Contract Antelope Valley activist group, which seeks the cancel the sheriff’s department’s contract with the high school district and the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale, accused the District of holding a secret Saturday vote, in a statement released after the meeting.

“With almost no advanced public notice, no consultation with a special committee that was formed on the issue, and with no way to participate in person or even give testimony remotely, today the Antelope Valley Union High School District Board of Trustees voted to reinstate the Sheriff’s contract through the end of the school year,” the release said despite the overwhelming number of public comments submitted.

Although public comment is typically limited to 20 minutes per topic, the Board agreed to allow all 118 messages to be read. Most letter writers were in favor of bringing deputies back to campuses.

A Highland High School student wrote to ask the Board to approve the proposed contract.

“I was driving to school my freshman year when I received a text not to go because there was a shooter on campus,” the student wrote. “I was immediately brought to tears, and it was a day I will never forget. For weeks after this incident, my friends and I were scared to go to school. But we felt protected from our staff, security, and our wonderful deputy. Our deputy worked so hard to make us all feel comfortable and become part of our school community. Students learning should be a top priority and the best way to keep our students safe is to have a deputy on campus.”

Other students shared personal stories of how their campus deputies helped them in their time of need and continued to reach  out even when they changed campuses.

Some of those who wrote in against the proposed contract cited concerns about the school-to-prison pipeline and suggested the money for the contract could be put to better use with resources to help students via counseling and mental health services.

Keppel Union School District trustee Waunette Cullors, co-chairwoman of the Cancel the Contract Antelope Valley coalition, opposed the proposed contract.

“Classrooms will not even have the standard number of students when schools open, and with less than half the number of students present over the next three months, how dare you anticipate the need for the presence of law enforcement on our campuses at all,” Cullors wrote. “Our students and families deserve better than to be viewed as criminals, and are far more deserving of services to assist with making healthier transitions back into the school environment such as counselors and mental health workers.”

Antelope Valley Teachers Association President Dan Shy acknowledged the proposed contract was perhaps the most controversial topic to go before the school board in his career.

“A topic this contentious leaves politicians little room for compromise,” Shy said. “I want to commend this Board for having the political willpower to face this decision head-on. You were elected to make tough decisions and I do not envy the position you are in at all. This is not an issue that can be taken lightly.”

The AVTA took no official position on the proposed contract, Shy said, adding that he heard nothing from teachers regarding the issue prior to the meeting.

“If there was a groundswell of opposition to having law enforcement on our campuses, trust me, I would have heard it,” Shy said.

California School Employees Association Chapter 612 President Karen White said she hoped the Board would approve the proposed contract with the sheriff’s department, and continue to provide another safety measure for the District.

White was part of a District committee convened to review the District’s contract with the sheriff’s department.

“I want to thank the deputies who attended those meetings and provided information that wasn’t in the statistics we received, as well as the students, teachers, administration, community members that were present as well as the classified staff that spoke to their experiences, both good and bad, expressed their concerns, and gave consideration to possible solutions,” White said. “All remembering that we have to start somewhere and work together to make any meaningful and positive changes.”

Student trustee Elijah Johnson started surveying students last July, and has since talked with hundreds of students.

“The majority of students I’ve spoken to have been in favor of the law enforcement presence,” said Johnson, who has also served on the sheriff’s department committee.

He added the school resource deputies are part of the campus community.

Johnson shared statistics that demonstrated how AV Union High School District has an average of student to counselor ratio of 330 to one, far below the state average of 609 students to one counselor.

“If you add other support staff we are looking at a 215 to one student to support staff ratio,” Johnson said. “These numbers share that our district is doing far better than the state average in support staff, almost three times better than the state average. We must make  responsible decision as a board and continue to keep our students safe as we return to campus in just hours,” Johnson said.

“There’s so many ways that the partnership with the deputies help keep our schools safe,” Board Clerk Donita Winn. “There’s a lot of ways that many people don’t have any idea actually happen.”

Winn added deputies are able to investigate threats against staff and students and other things such as human trafficking.

“The high school District has taken great pains to build a multilayered safety program; a safety program that protects our students and staff,” Winn said.

Board Vice President John Rush said he understood people who questioned the amount of money spent on the law enforcement contract. He disputed claims by some speakers.

“Since I have been on this board I have never heard of any deputy acting inappropriately on any campus,” Rush said. “There hasn’t been any of those allegations except by a select few who keep using the words excessive force, intimidation. I really don’t believe that’s happening on the campuses. Let’s just talk about the facts that are going on and quite bringing things up that don’t exist because that’s not happening.”

Board member Amanda Parrell, who joined the meeting, shared a personal story about her son, who has bullied at school and said he felt  \more safe with deputies at school because the bullies would not bully him.

Board President Jilly McGrady said if she is making a mistake, she is doing so on the side of safety.

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