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Arming school resource officers remains a contentious issue in Spokane Public Schools 

click to enlarge Resource officers in Spokane have asked to be armed.
  • Resource officers in Spokane have asked to be armed.

Blaine Gaskill, a school resource officer in Maryland, confronts a 17-year-old gunman who had just shot and killed a girl at a high school in March. The teen, with Gaskill armed and ready to use his weapon, turns the handgun on himself and fires.

Mark Dallas, a school resource officer in Illinois, chases a 19-year-old gunman out of the school before anybody is harmed last month. In an exchange of gunfire, Dallas shoots the gunman, who is hospitalized for non-life-threatening injuries.

Both incidents made national headlines, proof to many that the presence of armed officers can save lives in a school shooting.

Now, some of the resource officers in Spokane Public Schools are asking to be armed, rekindling a years-long debate about whether to arm the 15 resource officers under the control of Mark Sterk, director of campus safety for the district.

"Their concern is they can't protect their kids if we do have an armed threat in the building," Sterk says.

With school out for the summer, Spokane Public Schools is looking to improve safety and security heading into next year. In 2018, that means putting an eye on preventing school shootings. The district has created a campus security and safety task force and hired an organization called Safe Havens International to study all of the district's safety and security programs. (Safe Havens was also hired by a school board in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were killed in a February school shooting.)

The moves prompted several to urge Spokane Public Schools to arm resource officers during a school board meeting weeks ago. But just as many spoke against it, arguing that more guns in schools — even in the hands of trained officers — won't solve the problem of school shootings, and may even further traumatize kids.

As the district waits for the Safe Haven study, school board President Sue Chapin says she has heard and understands both sides of the debate over having armed officers in schools.

"Citizens are not speaking with one voice as far as arming or not arming," Chapin says. "There are two very distinct viewpoints."

A SECOND ATTEMPT?

The last time Spokane Public Schools took a serious look at its safety and security programs was five years ago, in response to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Then, an internal audit recommended arming school resource officers, which most school districts in Washington do.

"There was that interest and we were looking into it," says Mark Anderson, Spokane Public Schools associate superintendent.

But the idea ran into some roadblocks. The resource officers in the district are issued a limited commission authority through the Spokane Police Department, and the idea had to go through SPD and Spokane City Council. The police department, under then-Chief Frank Straub, wanted the school district to pay for a police sergeant to supervise the armed officers. And with City Council President Ben Stuckart against the proposal, it never was brought forward.

Last year, resource officers requested to be trained and armed with guns, in preparation for the district's 2019 bargaining session with the Spokane Education Association.

There are multiple instances of armed officers ending school shootings and preventing further tragedy. But unarmed teachers or staff members in schools have also stopped shootings. An Indianapolis teacher, for example, disarmed a student last month. At Freeman High School, a janitor helped stop the gunman.

In Spokane, Sterk says none of his resource officers have been in a situation where they've needed a gun in recent years.

"We've been very, very fortunate," Sterk says.

So far, research has not clearly shown that the presence of an armed guard acts as a deterrent for would-be shooters. Meanwhile, plenty of parents and student advocacy groups argue the presence of an armed officer would have a detrimental effect on the school environment.

Tara Lee, a parent of a 15-year-old high school student at Lewis and Clark, says an armed officer would only make a school feel "more like a prison," noting that schools now have only a single point of entry,

"They're already feeling like it's more and more prison-like," Lee says. "An armed officer makes it more so."

Lyric, a 15-year-old sophomore at North Central, says she trusts the resource officer at the school currently. But as someone who witnessed gun violence as a child growing up in San Francisco, she says an officer with a gun would make her uneasy.

"I feel like not every student would feel safer," Lyric says. "A lot of students come from places with gun violence, so then having to come to school [seeing] a gun doesn't make people feel safer."

Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have pushed for schools to decrease the presence of resource officers overall, arguing they can criminalize student behavior, especially for students of color. And while student arrests in Spokane Public Schools have dipped dramatically the last two years — there were 96 arrests this school year, compared with 806 two years ago — students of color are still disproportionately disciplined.

Imani Warden, who works in Spokane schools as an Americorps site coordinator and is a member of the Spokane NAACP, says guns in the hands of resource officers will only heighten tensions for students of color.

"When you're having guns in school that actually brings more fear," Warden says.

Sterk, a former Spokane County sheriff, isn't so sure. While he's firmly against putting guns in the hands of teachers, he argues resource officers are trained to de-escalate situations. Arming them with the proper training, he says, won't change that. He says that based on his own background with a firearm.

"It was never my experience that the firearm escalated anything," Sterk says.

GETTING APPROVAL

Sterk thinks the conversation around arming resource officers is different than it was five years ago. There are more school shootings now than there were five years ago, he says.

But there are plenty of hurdles in the way of arming resource officers. Even if the Safe Haven study recommends it, it would likely have to wait until the 2019 bargaining session. The City Council would have to agree to changes, and the contract between the school district and the police department would need to change, Anderson says.

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl, for his part, told the district he would support efforts to arm resource officers, as long as they go through firearm training through SPD including annual training on use of force, and that they go through background screening similar to full-time commissioned officers. While he'd prefer an SPD sergeant to be "more involved" in overseeing resource officers, it's not a dealbreaker for him.

Overall, he says he's "comfortable" arming resource officers with Sterk leading them.

"If there is anyone who would be skilled at ensuring an appropriate and smooth transition, Director Sterk would be that person," Meidl says.

Stuckart remains skeptical that arming resource officers is the right solution.

"I'd sure love to see some evidence that says arming officers works," he says.

But he'd support armed officers in schools under the right conditions: They'd have to have as much training as a commissioned SPD officer, they'd have to have body cameras and they'd have to have independent oversight like an ombudsman.

And he says there is a relatively easy way to do that: Put commissioned SPD officers in schools. It's what Central Valley School District does with the Spokane County Sheriff's Office.

That might be more expensive, however. And the school board may instead turn to other more preventative measures. The district continues to increase the amount of mental health counselors who can help students in crisis, for example.

"I'm a registered nurse, and I'm always more in favor of prevention. I'd rather see those safeguards in advance than deal with calamities afterward," Chapin says.

Still, Chapin says the board is open to recommendations from the Safe Haven study and the task force.

"We just want to do the safest thing for our schools," Chapin says. "There isn't one perfect answer." 

wilsonc@inlander.com

The original print version of this article was headlined "Good Guys With Guns"

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