This article has been edited to remove the quotes from a student who did not want to be included.
After a lengthy discussion last week about whether police officers belong on school campuses, the Edmonds School Board held a special meeting Tuesday to offer community members the chance to give feedback on the divisive issue.
More than 140 community members registered for the virtual community forum, including students, parents and school faculty and administrators. Dozens spoke either in favor of or against having police officers – otherwise known as school resource officers or SROs — on high school campuses.
“School should be a place where I feel safe and comfortable to talk to any staff members,” said Chiwetalu Ekwueme, a sophomore in the district. “We all know people of color and Black people have a disadvantage in pretty much everything, especially police. Look at the news and a new Black person has died at the hands of someone who’s meant to protect us.”
The SRO program is set up through an interlocal agreement between the district and local law enforcement agencies, which define the SRO’s role at the school. Currently, Lynnwood, Meadowdale, Mountlake Terrace and Edmonds-Woodway high schools have SROs. Involved agencies include the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and the Edmonds, Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace police departments.
At its June 9 meeting, the school board discussed whether the district should renew contracts — set to expire at the end of this month — with the Edmonds and Mountlake Terrace police departments. Additionally, the board is considering canceling contracts with the two other agencies while it deliberates if having SROs is in the best interest of all students.
Citing a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education during the 2015-16 school year, district student intervention coordinator Nasarin Ahmed pointed out the disproportionate number of police officers in school instead of other support staff like counselors, nurses, school psychologists or social workers. Ahmed also said that police have historically been a force of violence against Black people and other marginalized groups.
“Policing in the south emerged from the slave patrols in the 1700s and 1800s that caught and returned runaway slaves,” she said. “In the north, the first municipal police department in the 1800s helped quash labor strikes and riots against the rich.”
Edmonds Heights K-12 parent Rita Johnston said that she was concerned about the idea of non-people of color in the district deciding what is in the best interest for students of color.
“For the past year and a half, students of color have continuously put themselves and their trauma on display,” she said. “My concern is that in this process the board is continuously not listening.”
Instead of investing in SROs, Johnston said the district should bring in more counselors trained to help students.
“(SROs) do not have the training involved in understanding trauma,” she said. “They are not qualified in this role in supporting students in this way. So, why are we continuously giving them this power?”
Speaking in favor of the SRO program, Edmonds resident Molly Reeves, who has two children in the district, said having police in schools could help bridge the gap between communities of color and law enforcement.
“In my opinion, if our goal is to promote positive police interaction within our communities and foster a healthy relationship with law enforcement, I think that the schools are a good place to start,” she said.
District parent and Lynnwood City Council Vice-President Shannon Sessions also said keeping SROs in schools could be beneficial for marginalized students who have not yet had a chance to develop positive relationships with law enforcement. According to Sessions, who has also worked with law enforcement to teach crime prevention classes across the district, these relationships have helped students feel comfortable enough to seek help from SROs when needed.
“Over many joint years of working in this industry, there are countless success stories of these positive relationships and feedback from students of all backgrounds,” she said.
With some students bringing drugs and weapons to school, Mountlake Terrace student Sadie Sadler said having an SRO on campus made her feel safe. Though understanding and supporting the rights of students of color speaking out against SROs, Sadler said not all police officers are racists who believe themselves to be above the law.
“Police officers and our SROs are here to protect us and please don’t think I’m excusing the actions of (other) police officers, because I’m not,” she said.
Near the end of the forum, former Executive Director of Equity and Public Relations Dr. Kimberlee Armstrong — who spoke in favor of the SRO program — said while working alongside law enforcement in schools, she encountered several instances in which having a police officer on campus who knew the students was crucial.
“There are many times as a principal you have to dial 911,” she said. “When I needed an officer to deal with a student on student rape, gang violence, sex trafficking, drug distribution, neighborhood violence and student-on-student domestic violence, I found it critical to have someone who was familiar with our kids and our school.”
Furthermore, Armstrong recalled a situation in which a student who was a Level I sex offender required constant supervision while attending school due to the nature of the crimes committed.
“Remember, everyone has a right to public education,” she said. “So, do you know or can imagine what we protect our students from on a daily basis?”
A decision on whether the district will continue to place SROs on school campuses is expected to be made at the school board’s June 23 business meeting.
Incoming Superintendent Dr. Gustavo Balderas, who will begin his new position July 1, sat in on the forum to hear from the community on the issue. After the forum, Balderas said he was grateful to be able to listen to the passionate arguments from both sides.
“Whether or not the school board decides next week to renew contracts with school resource officers, it is my job coming into the district to listen to the community and work with the school board to focus on the safety and security of all students,” he said.
–By Cody Sexton