UPDATE, 8 p.m.: Adds comments from Seattle Superintendent Denise Juneau.
With nationwide protests over police brutality, community members and some educators in the Puget Sound region are calling for school districts to remove law enforcement officers from schools. School leaders in Minneapolis and Portland already have moved to take that step, and the superintendent of Seattle Public Schools said it's time to re-evaluate an agreement that placed officers in schools.
In Bellevue, a group known as Educators for Justice is urging the school district to cut ties with the Bellevue Police Department. Six uniformed, armed officers are based in Bellevue schools and the district pays about $300,000 annually, roughly one-third of the cost, said Meeghan Black, a spokesperson for the Bellevue Police Department.
Terry Jess is a history and ethnic studies teacher at Bellevue High School and a member of Educators for Justice. He emphasized that he spoke for himself and not the school district.
“This is part of a system that dehumanizes Black students, disproportionately disciplines Black students, and when police are in school, studies show the number of law enforcement referrals and referrals for charges to be pressed increase for students of color, particularly Black students,” Jess said.
Michael May, a spokesperson for the Bellevue school district, said the purpose of school resource officers is to promote safety and security of students, staff and visitors. He said they help educate students about crime prevention and drug use and serve as informal mentors to students. May said the officers receive training in best practices about how to interact with students from different backgrounds, including English language learners and LGBTQ students.
In the Highline School District, which includes communities near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, some teachers from Evergreen High School in White Center sent a letter to the school board calling for school resource officers to be removed from the campus.
This school year, Highline has had an armed school resource officer at each of its comprehensive high schools through arrangements with the King County Sheriff’s Department, the Des Moines Police Department, and the police departments of SeaTac and Burien, which contract with the King County Sheriff's Department. Catherine Carbone Rogers, a spokesperson for the Highline district, said the district's school resource officer budget for the 2019-2020 school year was about $360,000.
Adam Even Engel teaches science at Evergreen High School and wrote the letter. Engel said the money would be better spent on social workers to help students learn how to emotionally self-regulate. He emphasized that he was speaking for himself and not the school or the district.
“I think it really starts with treating our students not as future criminals, but actually treating them as people who are in a great stage of development where they have great opportunities to learn and grow how to be adults,” he said.
Highline school board director Aaron Garcia tried at last week’s board meeting to add a proposal to the agenda to suspend contracts with sheriff and city police departments, but did not get additional board support.
“I’ve struggled over the last couple of days to find the right words to express how hurt and disappointed I am with the inaction of our Highline School Board to respond quickly and boldly by breaking ties with local law enforcement at this time,” Garcia wrote in a Facebook post. “We know that we have the ability to have influence and to change not just our system but other inequitable systems. We also have the power to show our students and families that first and foremost, we stand with them.”
Highline only has contracts for two SROs for the next school year, at Tyee and Mount Rainier high schools, because of a lack of qualified applicants, Carbone Rogers said. She said the purpose of having the officers at school is for safety and to build relationships with students. She said the focus should be on keeping students out of the criminal justice system and not using criminal sanctions for things that can better be handled by the school.
"The conversation about whether to continue contracting SROs is the right conversation to be having with our community right now. Priorities and thinking are shifting from an emphasis on preventing school shootings to a focus on racism and police brutality," Carbone Rogers said, adding that the school board heard from many people last week on both sides of the issue. "We want to have a thoughtful conversation with our community about this."
In Seattle, school board director Brandon Hersey said he and fellow board directors Zachary DeWolf and Chandra Hampson plan to introduce a resolution to reevaluate the relationship between the school district and the Seattle Police Department for having officers based at schools.
There are four armed school emphasis officers in the district, one each at Denny, Aki Kurose and Washington middle schools, as well as South Shore K-8. Tim Robinson, a spokesperson for the Seattle school district, said the officers focus on gang resistance, violence prevention education and training, and truancy and suspension reduction. The city also has an armed school resource officer at Garfield High School.
Superintendent Denise Juneau said in a letter to families that the board resolution would also include a one-year districtwide suspension of having officers based at schools.
Juneau said the district’s strategic plan prioritizes the needs of Black boys and having armed officers at schools can cause distress for students.
"Words of support and love are essential, but if we do not take this most important moment to act and to live out the values and commitments of our strategic plan, Seattle Excellence, we will have failed," she said. "I recognize that for many students, any police presence in school buildings can create an environment of fear rather than one of safety."