Tacoma schools to evaluate contract with police

Tacoma schools to evaluate contract with police
(Drew Perine/The News Tribune) (Drew Perine)

TACOMA, Wash. — A request by the Tacoma teachers union last week to remove school resource officers (SROs) from campuses because some students felt unsafe has led the district’s school board to evaluate its agreement with the Tacoma Police Department.

As a result of the request and concerns flooding in from the community, the Tacoma Public Schools Board of Directors held a meeting Thursday to discuss safety and security in schools.

While the members stopped short of any immediate action to remove SROs, the board asked Superintendent Carla Santorno to come up with a plan to evaluate the district’s relationship with the Tacoma Police Department.

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“We need to have dialogue with (TPD) to tell them that while it appears the relationship on campus is mostly positive, there are issues that may be fleshed out through a deeper surveying of our students and their experience, and that there are things that absolutely have to change regardless of whether we’re in a contractual relationship or not,” board president Scott Heinze said.

The board advocated for surveying students about their experiences and reaching out to community organizations for more input.

“I think we should give a lot of weight to the families of color who have positive or negative feelings,” board director Enrique Leon said.

“We often talk a lot about our concrete numbers and lose sight of the fact that students and family feelings matter … The uniform and the presence of police and the way that makes students feel matters,” board vice president Andrea Cobb said.

In Tacoma Public Schools, security includes:

25 campus security officers (CSO): CSOs are assigned to middle and elementary schools, employed by the school district, unarmed and do not wear police uniforms.

7 school patrol officers (SPOs): SPOs patrol the district and respond where they are needed, employed by the district, unarmed and wear police-style uniforms.

5 school resource officers (SROs): SROs are assigned to high schools, are employed by the Tacoma Police Department, are armed and wear police uniforms.

There have been no SRO complaints or investigations filed with Tacoma police or the school district, according to district staff.

In the past four years, there have been a total of 71 arrests by SROs reflecting a variety of incidents, ranging from felonies to misdemeanors.

2017: 30 arrests

2018: 25 arrests

2019: 15 arrests

2020: 1 arrest

“We do have a disproportionality of students, specifically males of color, compared to other groups,” said Deputy Superintendent Joshua Garcia. He added the numbers cannot be broken down any further because the information could identify students.

The discussion of SROs comes on the heels of a decision by the Tacoma Education Association to send a letter asking for the removal of uniformed police officers from campuses starting this fall, spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement and protests across the world over the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police. The death of Manuel Ellis in Tacoma while in police custody has highlighted concerns within the city.