City Formalizes Policing El Morro Campus After Parents Complain

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City manager pushes back on parents’ ask to annex campus, hire second resource officer

By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent

Laguna Beach will pursue an interjurisdictional agreement with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to memorialize a long-standing pact allowing its police officers to respond to El Morro Elementary School after fielding complaints this week from concerned parents.

El Morro sits outside the city limits on unincorporated land, which technically falls within the Sheriff’s jurisdiction, making it the lead investigative agency for the school. Capt. Jeff Calvert of the Laguna Beach Police Department said Wednesday that his officers have responded and will respond to El Morro for calls regarding crimes in progress. The department’s average response time on such calls is less than two minutes, Calvert said.

“If there’s something in progress, we’ve always been the first responders,” Calvert said. “If a report needs to be taken or an arrest needs to be made, we’ll stand by there until [deputies] get there.”

The proposed agreement would likely need to be approved by the Laguna Beach City Council and the Orange County Board of Supervisors. Laguna Beach police have offered to respond to all calls from El Morro in the meantime.

On Sept. 17, El Morro parents shared safety concerns during a PTA meeting attended by a slate of officials including Laguna Beach Police Chief Laura Farinella, City Manager John Pietig, Superintendent Jason Viloria, El Morro Principal Chris Duddy, Capt. Mike Peters of the Sheriff’s North Operations Bureau, and Lt. Pat Rich, chief of police services for Villa Park.

El Morro parents have complained about waiting more than 45 minutes for sheriff deputies dispatched from Santa Ana to take a report. They’re also concerned that only 911 calls from the school’s landlines are directly routed to the Laguna Beach Police Department—cell phone calls often bounce between the Sheriff’s Department, Newport Beach police, and Laguna Beach police. Laguna Beach patrol officers currently turn around at Irvine Cove, which limits deterrence and proactive policing, parents said.

A Sept. 27 traffic collision involving an El Morro teacher prompted discussion about 911 calls at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

The initial 911 call was made from a landline phone in the school office. The dispatcher put the caller on hold to transfer the call to the Sheriff’s Department. The dispatcher then said the sheriff’s phone number they had was disconnected. The 911 call did not go through.

A second 911 call from a cell phone was answered by Newport Beach police. They put the caller on hold and said they were transferring them to the correct jurisdiction and then connected them with Laguna Beach police. Duddy made a third call to the cell phone of Cpl. Cornelius Ashton, school resource officer for Laguna Beach. Ashton asked another officer to assist and personally arrived 25 minutes later.

Members of the El Morro Elementary Safety Committee proposed annexing the campus to Laguna Beach, but Pietig opposes the idea.

In an interview with the Independent, Pietig said that the process of annexation would require cooperation with several agencies, including the Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission, and hundreds of hours of city staffers’ time.

“There would be no practical benefit to providing services to El Morro,” Pietig said. “The only real purpose appears to be community pride.”

The school’s annexation also wouldn’t necessarily solve issues with routing 911 calls, Pietig said. Laguna Beach city staffers plan to speak with the telecommunications companies about cleaning up the spiderweb of jurisdictions answering calls from El Morro.

Angela Harris, a mother of two students at El Morro and one at Thurston Middle School, was dismayed to hear Pietig’s statement that “community pride” is the only reason to annex the campus.

“Our children should be protected by our city, and if El Morro is not in the beat, it’s not being served by our police department,” she said.

Amber Offield, a member of the El Morro Safety Committee, said annexation is the right thing to do for El Morro students who are Laguna Beach residents and whose parents are taxpayers and voters.

Laguna Beach parents are also asking that the city and school district partner to hire a second school resource officer to assist Ashton. But they’ve also faced push back on the proposal from the City Manager’s office.

“If there is a desire to further expand the program, the city doesn’t have the funds to cover the cost of a second resource officer,” Pietig said.

The district contributes $15,000 per year for the school resource officer program, and the city picks up the remaining expense.

Offield argues it’s disingenuous for Pietig to tout fiscal responsibility when he collects an annual salary of about $280,000. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s annual salary is $210,000.

“To me, when they say we don’t have money, they’re saying it’s not a priority,” Offield said. “I would like to see them come to our school and tell our children that they’re not a priority.”

On Tuesday, Ashton told the School Board that about 80 percent of his time is spent addressing students’ social and emotional issues, adding that he receives calls and text messages from students around the clock. He also recently danced with students at the Laguna Beach High School’s Homecoming.

“I want our kids to see that there are great cops,” Ashton said. “I’ve had kids ask for the same officers to return after they’ve been on campus. I truly believe in my heart that there are other officers who will provide the same safety, care, and trust with our kids.”

Pietig plans to meet with Viloria next week to discuss the details of adding a second school resource officer.

The Safety Committee successfully lobbied Mayor Bob Whalen to place an item on the Oct. 29 City Council agenda to discuss school safety issues.

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  1. City Manager John Pietig submitted the following letter in response to this article:
    October 11, 2019
    Letter to the Editor
    Update Regarding El Morro Policing Discussions
    City and School District officials attended a PTA meeting at El Morro school on September 17, 2019 to discuss concerns about policing. Although the City responds to most 9-1-1 calls relating to the school, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department has formal responsibility for serving the school since it is in an unincorporated area of the County. In response to concerns from the meeting, the City has secured authorization from the Sheriff’s department to exercise police powers for all activities occurring at El Morro school. In furtherance of this authorization, the Laguna Beach Police Department (LBPD) has been directed to respond to all calls at El Morro school (as of October 3), and the City Council will have the ability to formalize this arrangement at its meeting on October 29. LBPD has also been directed to analyze how 9-1-1 calls are routed from land lines and cell phones with the goal of getting all such calls routed directly to LBPD dispatch.
    The issue of possible annexation has also come up. In order for the City of Laguna Beach to annex the area encompassing El Morro school, it would need to also annex the state RV park and county open space to the City’s northern boundary. If the City is successful at ensuring 9-1-1 calls are routed to LBPD dispatch, and continues providing police services to El Morro school, annexation would have no bearing on policing services or the resources to provide such services. In addition, annexation is a lengthy process at significant taxpayer expense.
    LBPD’s School Resource Officer (SRO) position was also discussed at the PTA meeting. The City provides the current SRO and covers annual costs in excess of $185,000 a year. I will be discussing options for the addition of a second SRO with the School District Superintendent, and I will provide an update to the City Council at its October 29 meeting.

    A lot of progress has been made in the last month and more work is underway. Look for the next update at the October 29 City Council meeting.

    John Pietig
    City Manager

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