Among expert's recommendations to improve safety in Spokane Public Schools: armed officers

A nonprofit specializing in school safety assessments has recommended that Spokane Public Schools look at ways to put armed officers in schools, a suggestion sure to reignite a debate locally about how to keep schools safe.

On Wednesday, Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, presented suggestions to improve school safety following a roughly seven-month assessment of security practices within the district. Among those suggestions is that the school district "develop a thoughtfully implemented approach to providing some form of preventive coverage by armed law enforcement personnel."

Safe Havens has conducted assessments for more more than 7,800 schools, including the 10 largest districts in the country.  That includes an assessment in Broward County Public Schools in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed in a school shooting last year. The final report from the seven-month long assessment of Spokane Public Schools is expected to be released next week.

Arming resource officers has long been a contentious issue in Spokane Public Schools. And this isn't the first time it's been recommended that the district do so. Six years ago, following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the district conducted an internal audit that recommended armed officers. But because the resource officers in the district are issued a limited commission authority through the Spokane Police, the idea had to go through SPD and the Spokane City Council, where it hit roadblocks.

Most school districts in the state have armed school resource officers. But while supporters of armed officers point to several incidents where one stopped a school shooter, research has not clearly shown that armed guards prevent would-be shooters. Those who oppose armed officers worry their presence would criminalize student behavior and disproportionately impact students of color.

Brian Coddington, spokesman for Spokane Public Schools, notes that Safe Havens wasn't just recommending the move in response to school shootings, but also because resource officers perform other duties — such as approaching a suspicious person on campus — where it may be prudent for the officer to carry a firearm.

But Coddington says there are "several steps" the district would have to go through before a decision is made either way. The school district will discuss the budgetary impacts of arming officers, and gather public input before the school board makes the final call. It would require a change in the contract between the district and the city for police officers.

City Council Ben Stuckart told the Inlander last year that he'd support armed officers in schools, but only under the right conditions: They have the same training as an SPD officer, body cameras and independent oversight. He suggested placing commissioned SPD officers in schools, though that likely would be an expensive choice for the school board.

Those budget challenges were noted by Dorn in his presentation to the school board this week. Also noted, according to the presentation, were "greater differences in viewpoints among constituencies for key areas than many communities."

Safe Havens pointed out a number of positives when it comes to school security in Spokane. Those included things like good PA and buzzer access systems, and praise for SPS being "proactive, thoughtful, deliberate and ethical in its approach at a time when knee-jerk reactions are causing serious harm in many school districts."

At the same time, Safe Havens pointed out opportunities for improvement in addition to arming officers. The presentation noted the need for social-emotional and behavioral prevention strategies, improvement in emergency training and drills, and increased training for resource officers coupled with more oversight of use of force.

Coddington says the school district will take time to consider the advice. The initial takeaway, he says, is that "there's a good foundation and a lot of things in place that we can build from."

 "And we need to have a conversation about how we prioritize and implement some of the things that Safe Havens has pointed out in their extensive review," Coddington says. 

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About The Author

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione is the Inlander’s news editor. Aside from writing and editing investigative news stories, he enjoys hiking, watching basketball and spending time with his wife and cat.