The sight of kids on a San Diego County Sheriff's Department bus with barred windows sparked outrage from hundreds of people on social media.
"Can someone explain this?!?! No way in hell!! Inner city kids were provided this bus to go to an event in Del Mar," a post on Facebook by Jay Caldwell read.
The kids were part of the annual Star/Pal Surf Clinic, which pairs each with a law enforcement buddy for surf lessons and other activities in Del Mar. The goal is to strengthen relationships between the two groups. For many of the children, it is also their first trip to the beach.
Ramona Bingham said she saw the bus typically used to transport inmates at the MLK Recreation Center when she went to drop off her granddaughter and niece for the beach trip. She immediately decided to drive them instead.
"The bus that drove into the parking lot was the San Diego County Sheriffs bus and I know what that bus is, I know what it is typically used for," said Bingham. "I was surprised to see it here."
In less than a day, the Facebook post and others like it had garnered hundreds of comments and dozens of reshares combined, and San Diego City Councilmember Monica Montgomery and the local chapter of the NAACP had both joined the discussion.
In a letter, NAACP San Diego President Clovis Honoré noted that the event was mostly attended by children of color and said the action highlights a disregard for the challenges they face.
"Children don't belong in environments meant to cage and hold adults. It is entirely inappropriate for any children at any time for any reason," Honoré wrote.
According to a spokesperson for Star/Pal, the sheriff's department is a sponsor of the program and provides the buses that transported more than 100 kids from across the county to this event.
"Why was this bus chosen? Why was it here in this community? Why are you taking kids out of this community who you say are under served, under privileged and you take them to Del Mar on this bus," Bingham said.
The San Diego County Sheriff's Department said that the buses are used for several different youth-centric events throughout the year, including the Special Olympics, Shop with a Cop and the Teddy Bear Drive. One bus is dedicated to these events and they are cleaned every night, SDSO said.
"Regarding the photo, the bus service was provided for STAR/PAL which is a non-profit group that may not always have the resources to pay for a tour bus. Deputies took the kids to Del Mar yesterday so they can participate in a surf camp," a portion of a statement from SDSO read.
Councilmember Montgomery called for the city to eliminate the use of these buses.
"I stand with the community and the parents that have expressed their concerns. I share the same concerns and have requested these buses no longer be used for this purpose," she said in a statement.
Several commenters said they realized the good the group does for the community, but said the bad judgment should not be ignored.
"I understand that they do great things in the community but this was not one of them. I don't know why they would choose to use prison buses but there's no way to this should've approved," Caldwell said.
Read the full statement from SDSO below:
We strongly believe in making connections with the people we serve. These programs provide a platform to establish a dialogue and foster an understanding of the law enforcement community. We want the youngest members of the community to know they can always come to a deputy for help.
Regarding the photo, the bus service was provided for STAR/PAL which is a non-profit group that may not always have the resources to pay for a tour bus. Deputies took the kids to Del Mar yesterday so they can participate in a surf camp. STAR/PAL's mission is to empower underserved youth to build a safer and more prosperous community by engaging with law enforcement and collaborative partners. When we receive the call for help from non-profit and community groups to provide assistance, we will always gladly oblige.
We also provide this service during the Special Olympics, bicycle giveaways, Shop with a Cop, Surf with a Cop, Teddy Bear Drive, as well as providing safety presentations at elementary schools among others.
The bus is also utilized for special events and turned into a Haunted Bus as an attraction during Light the Night Against Crime 5K for Crime Stoppers. We've also used the bus to help with evacuations during a wildfire.
There is one bus dedicated and used only for special events. All buses are cleaned every night. If they're going to be used for special events, they go through an even more detailed cleaning. Configurations on our buses are different depending on capacity. Any doors are kept open during special events.
It should be noted, our multi-functional buses are branded as the San Diego County Sheriff's Department. We use these buses to transport Special Olympic Athletes, grand jury members for site inspections, new employees and volunteers for orientation, recruits for training, Explorer Academy Cadets (teen volunteers for law enforcement from across California), even elected Sheriffs and their spouses from all across the country during the National Sheriffs' Association gathering in San Diego County.
Our goals are simple: support our partners in achieving their mission to serve our communities; ensure the children have a safe journey to their destination and for the children to have a positive encounter with law enforcement. We attached photos to this email of our Transportation Unit doing community outreach, as you can see it's a positive experience for everyone involved.