In response to the two recent gang-related murders, the Santa Barbara school board is stepping up its surveillance of students considered by the police to be “serious habitual offenders” — to the chagrin of local human rights activists and at least one school board member.

This week the board voted 3-1, after some bickering, to join forces with several law-enforcement agencies in the Serious Habitual Offender program, which would involve the inter-agency swapping of information such as criminal and attendance records.

As part of the plan, the school district will gain access to the criminal files of about 20 students whom have been arrested — though not necessarily convicted — numerous times on suspicion of crimes such as assault, robbery, burglary and rape.

“We have known stabbers on our campuses,” said Superintendent Brian Sarvis at the last school board meeting on Tuesday. “We have kids that have been arrested 10 times. We need to know who students are.”

The program will allow law enforcement agencies to recruit the habitual offenders into youth programs such as the local Police Activities League  (PAL) and the Police Explorers program. The league is a proactive community policing organization that sponsors events with at-risk students such as intermural basketball tournaments in a supervised environment. Explorers is a part of the Boy Scouts of America program that allows at-risk students to train with the police and go out on assignment.

The skeptics include members of local civil rights and Latino advocacy groups, who argue that the program may exacerbate existing tensions between at-risk students and police and school officials.

Chief among their complaints is how the school board is cooperating with the very agencies that many disaffected families do not trust: the Santa Barbara Police Department, the District Attorney’s Office and the county probation department.

“Most at-risk youth will not take part in PAL or Explorers simply because they have ‘police ‘ in the title,” said Keith Terry of the Santa Barbara Teen Legal Clinic. “It seems to me the school district is entering the realm of law enforcement.”

They also oppose how the program would target “potential” habitual offenders. These would be students who are one or two arrests shy of the threshold to meet the state criteria  for being considered a habitual juvenile offender.

“It’s like a movie I saw about future crimes, where they identified the criminal before the crime was committed,” Terry said.

Karena Jew of the Latino advocacy group PUEBLO  said the program may backfire.

“When we talk about the criminalization of youth, it’s about treating children as though they are criminals, and so then they identify as being a criminal,” she said. “All of us in this room are one arrest from being a felon.”

The groups suggested taking an approach that focuses on what is called “restorative justice,” in which offenders must face their victims and learn the consequences of their actions.

“The traditional approach of locking kids up — that should be a last resort,” said Nancy Davis of the local chapter of City at Peace , where at-risk students are encouraged to express themselves artistically. “By labeling the kid we are turning them into little criminals.”

Also critical of the proposal was Santa Barbara teachers union President Layne Wheeler. The proposal, he said, all but omitted the role of the teacher.

“Teachers have often been the primary source of prevention as students move toward gang activity or crime activity,” he said.

The detractors were able to bend the ear of school board member Annette Cordero, who cast the lone no vote. (School board President Nancy Harter was absent.)

“I’m very concerned that part of the list (spelling out the school district’s role in the program) does not seem to me to embody rehabilitation,” she said. 

Cordero added that while she understands the need to identify the 20 or so students in question, she wondered whether there was a way to do so without entering into the Serious Habitual Offender program.

Her comments struck a nerve with school board member Bob Noel.

“There were two killings, and we know that a number of individuals were complicit,” he said. “A lot of these kids are school-aged. The thought that we have people who are potentially complicit to murder, accomplices to murder, and indeed murderers, and we don’t want to know who they are — I find that beyond disbelief.

“If someone has been arrested that many times — do you think there’s a little smoke there?”

Cordero returned the fire, reiterating that she does want to identify the kids, just not through the program. 

“I don’t know how I could have been more clear,” she said. “But if you really wanted to know what I said you would have listened.”

Michael Gonzalez, the school district administrator who researched the program, said it is just one of a three-part plan to curb teen violence. This part is known as the “suppression” aspect, he said. The other two, he said, focus on intervention and prevention.

Gonzalez made a point to stress the severity of the crimes in question.

“Take a look at the criteria — three or more (arrests) for burglaries, robberies or sexual assaults,” he said. “These are serious crimes. These are not simply, ‘I was jaywalking.’ ”