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Shooting death of young California woman raises questions about armed school safety officers

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One day after Manuela "Mona" Rodriguez's death, the Long Beach, California, school board fired the school safety officer who shot the 18-year-old last week while she was a passenger in a moving vehicle.

The dismissal of the officer, Eddie F. Gonzalez, announced during Wednesday's school board meeting after a unanimous executive-session vote, was followed by a public comment session that featured calls for the elimination of armed officers in schools.

Rodriguez, the mother of a 5-month-old boy, died Tuesday when life-support machinery was turned off. She had been hospitalized since Sept. 27, when a bullet fired by Gonzalez hit her "in the upper body" as she and two friends drove away from an off-campus parking lot near Millikan High School, according to the Long Beach Police Department. Gonzalez, who was driving nearby, stopped after witnessing a fight between Rodriguez and a 15-year-old girl, according to police, who are conducting a homicide investigation.

In a statement after Rodriguez's death, her family described how she donated her heart, liver, lungs and kidneys to transplant patients.

"All the doctors and nurses of Long Beach Memorial Medical Center on Mona's floor gave a hero's celebration to Mona by standing in the hallway as Mona was taken to the operation while her favorite song was played: Skeezy's 'Letter to My Son.' The song was replayed over and over during the operation to donate her organs to five people," the statement said. "Mona's heart stopped at 5:14 p.m. (Tuesday).  Rest in Peace, Mona – Your family will always fight for justice for you!"

No announcement has been made regarding funeral plans for Rodriguez, who was not a student at Long Beach schools. A GoFundMe page set up to support the young woman and her family had raised more than $32,000 toward its goal of $50,000 by Thursday afternoon.

Superintendent Jill A. Baker appeared Wednesday before reporters to express condolences and briefly explain the dismissal decision.

“I want to start by expressing our deep sadness about this incident,” Baker said in a statement announcing Gonzalez's dismissal. “We send our sincerest condolences to everyone who has been impacted by this terrible event, especially the family and friends of the shooting victim, Manuela Rodriguez.”

As the Long Beach Police Department and Los Angeles County district attorney continue to investigate the shooting, “we clearly saw areas where this employee violated district policy and did not meet our standards and expectations. We believe the decision to terminate this officer’s employment is warranted, justified, and quite frankly, the right thing to do,” Baker said. She added that Gonzalez passed all background checks and his required training had been confirmed before he was hired in January. 

The district found that Gonzalez violated policy forbidding an officer from firing at a fleeing person, a moving vehicle or through a vehicle window unless such action is warranted as "a final means of defense," the statement said.

"As with all things in the school district, especially a tragedy of this nature, we will absolutely be reviewing all aspects of our school safety office and their role in keeping students safe in the district, including whether they carry a weapon or not," Baker told reporters.

Attorney Michael Carrillo of Carrillo Law Firm, which is representing the Rodriguez family, said Thursday that Gonzalez's firing was "the first step that needed to have been taken" and that the family and their lawyers want the police and prosecutor to file criminal charges. 

"I'd like to see the Long Beach Police Department get their investigation wrapped up and sent over to the D.A. and hopefully they'll file murder charges (or), at the least, manslaughter,"  he said. Gonzalez "took those intentional steps toward the vehicle, he whipped out his gun and shot a hollow-tip bullet into her head."

Carrillo called the presence of armed officers on high school campuses "totally inappropriate."

"Eddie Gonzalez wasn't trained as well as any police officer would be in his position and yet he's given the authority to have a weapon on campus with high school kids aged 14 to 18," he said. "I think that if he didn't have a weapon, we wouldn't be talking today." 

At the school board meeting, Long Beach Human Relations Commission Chair Alyssa Gutierrez, who has two children in city schools, said "there's ample evidence to support that police and armed security in schools do not improve safety. In fact, in many cases, they're causing more harm – or harm that disproportionately falls on our youth of color and youth with disabilities."

She asked that more resources go toward hiring mental health professionals, social workers and nurses and called for the district to have the "courage to reimagine safety, safety that doesn't include armed officers in or near our schools. I'm calling on this body to get guns out of my children's schools." 

Calls to end having armed officers in schools grew during the social activism surge that followed the 2020 police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, but criticism of school police spending and law-enforcement practices on campuses began earlier. A 2019 American Civil Liberties Union study advocated a shift in spending from campus policing to mental health professionals.    

The "prioritization of school police is troubling, not only for the lack of mental health support for our nation’s students, but also given that research indicates school police do not reduce mass shootings and instead contribute to less inclusive school climates," the report said.

In Congress, six Democrats — Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass.; Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn.; Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y.; Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.; Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn.; and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. — introduced the Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act, which "would prohibit the use of federal funds to increase police presence in schools and instead provide $5 billion in new grant funding to help schools hire more counselors, social workers and other behavioral health personnel … (to) create positive and safe climates for all students."

The assignment of armed law enforcement officers in schools goes back to the 1950s and has risen, especially after mass school shootings, over the last three decades, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) in Hoover, Alabama.

Canady differentiated between safety officers employed by a school district, as in Gonzalez's case, and school resource officers, federally defined as being fully sworn, certified law enforcement officers deployed by a law enforcement agency to perform community-based policing on a school campus. NASRO has no connection to Gonzalez or Long Beach schools, he said.

Canady said well-trained law enforcement officers are needed to protect the nation's schools, noting 97 gun-related incidents since Aug. 1, more than three times the number reported in the same period in 2019. He strongly disagreed with calls for the elimination of all armed officers in schools, calling them "stunning."

"I understand it. I get it. There is a lot of emotion in that. I get that, too. But what we have to do is to make sure that the people who are there are the right people to be there, that they're sworn law enforcement, that they're trained to do this job the right way. That's just critical," he said.