The months-long cold war between Hesperia Unified police officers and some district officials turned hot this week, with the placing of the chief of police on administrative leave an attorney for the officers delivering a "cease and desist" notice to board members and Superintendent Mark McKinney.


Tuesday afternoon, HUSD board members were sent faxes announcing that Chief Mike Graham had been placed on administrative leave.


"I got a fax about 2:40," said school board member Hardy Black. "Totally blindsided, of course, everything that's happening these days," fellow minority board member "Anthony Riley and I are totally being cut out of it."


The fax did not indicate the reason for Graham being placed on leave, he said.


Graham could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.


The fax came a day after a letter from a Laguna Hills lawyer ordered the district to "stop all unlawful acts against" members of the district police force, "including retaliation and attempts to control their law enforcement activities."


"At this stage the Police Officers require that all acts of retaliation and harassment against them as well as the imposition of improper attempts to control the performance of their law enforcement duties cease and desist," the 10-page letter, sent Monday by the law firm of Linda A. Albers, reads in part. "Failure by the District, its supervisors, and its agents to step this conduct will most certainly lead to further legal action."


The letter was in response to a July 18 memorandum from McKinney to Graham, limiting the role of officers in the coming school year and putting more responsibility in the hands of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department. McKinney and board president Chris Bentley have said the changes will keep their police on high school campuses and increase safety, while officers have said it's a risky move they're unwilling to support.


"It's not about the kids anymore. It's about retaliation," said HUSD police officer Brian Owen, during an hour-long string of testimony from police department supporters during Monday's school board meeting.


"I plead for you to keep those officers on our campuses," said Renee Browning, a counselor at Oak Hills High School.


Former school board member Lee Rogers, who was assaulted by a student while working as an English teacher in the Victor Valley Unified High School District, told the board she's "living proof" of what happens when a district does not have its own police department.


"The police are welcome to get up and state whatever they want to state, but they weren't talking about anything on the agenda," Bentley said Tuesday. "They keep talking like the police department is going to get disbanded. That is absolutely false."


The dispute between the district and officers first went public in March, when Graham and Officer (and city councilman) Bill Holland accused McKinney of preventing them from investigating Sultana High School student government accounting regularities as a criminal investigation back in 2009.


A May 31 private investigator's report supported their assertion that McKinney had told Graham and other officers to stop pursuing a criminal investigation. However, the report disagreed with officers' assertions that budget cuts to the department were retaliation, as the cash-strapped district was also trimming other departments.


Albers' letter characterizes the 20-percent cuts to the department as "disproportionate ... in comparison to the reductions made to other departments and schools." It calls for the district to rescind a layoff notice issued to Officer Terry Scharfe, which reduced the school police force from seven to six officers for the school year, which begins Monday.


"It's just a mess," said Black. "We're in a mess."


City editor Brooke Edwards contributed to this report.


Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 760-956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.