Tacoma teachers union wants uniformed police officers removed from schools starting in fall

TACOMA, Wash. — The Tacoma Education Association passed a resolution Tuesday night asking Tacoma Public Schools’ Board of Directors to remove school resource officers (SROs) starting this fall.

Tacoma Public Schools currently contracts with the Tacoma Police Department for full-time, on-duty officers, at all five comprehensive high schools.

The teachers union brought forward the resolution at a meeting Tuesday after some members shared stories of students not being comfortable around the officers. They also had a conversation about the death of Manuel Ellis in Tacoma, who died while being arrested by police on March 3.

“That led us to the discussion that having police officers in schools is not a comfort for a lot of our students,” TEA union president Angel Morton told The News Tribune on Wednesday morning.

Tacoma Police Department spokesperson Wendy Haddow told The News Tribune on Wednesday that the department was waiting to hear more information from the district before commenting.

The resolution asks for the funding of the SROs to instead be used for educators trained in conflict management, crisis response and mental health, Morton said.

The resolution isn’t meant to reflect badly on the SROs, who are good people doing good work, Morton said, but to address the need for students of color to feel safe and supported.

“The attempt here is that there is so much work that needs to be done, and we have to start someplace,” Morton said.

The resolution passed with 55 percent approval, with about 114 TEA members attending the meeting. The members represent 2,280 total TEA members.

Morton is drafting a letter to be shared with the district’s Board of Directors at the next meeting.

The district first entered into an agreement with TPD in 2009 for SROs to “address potential school violence with both prevention and intervention techniques,” according to the district website.

The latest five-year agreement with TPD was approved Aug. 26, 2016 for $2.15 million and added a supervisor for all SROs.

“A key benefit of having a full-time SRO at a high school is that he or she can develop relationships with students, providing opportunities for students to get to know the officers and feel comfortable providing information on potential issues,”according to the district website states.

There are students at Tacoma schools who aren’t comfortable around the officers — some even avoid going to the cafeteria during lunchtime if an SRO is there, Morton told The News Tribune.

“We believe as educators that other people can do that work,” she said. “We don’t need uniformed police officers in our building.”

School board president Scott Heinze on Wednesday said the board was not notified of the vote beforehand but wants the community to know they’ve been heard. The board has scheduled a study session for June 18 to discuss safety operations in schools.

“The board wants to make certain that we fully understand what is occurring in our buildings,” Heinze said. “We want to look at the data and understand what’s occurring in our buildings before we contemplate making any major changes.”

Heinze said he’s not aware of any recorded issues during this current campus with SROs on campus.

In a statement to the community on June 5, the school board said it was “deeply saddened” by Ellis’ death.

“As we learn more about the investigation into the circumstances around Manny Ellis’ death, we will continue to examine our current practices to break down any harmful constructions that do not support a safe, healthy, and supportive learning environment for our students,” the statement said.

Other school districts across the country are taking similar action regarding police officers on campus, following protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month.

Seattle Public Schools officials announced on Tuesday their intent to suspend their contract with the Seattle Police Department for one year.

Portland Public Schools also announced last week it would discontinue the presence of school resource officers on campuses.

“There’s a lot of racial tension in our country right now,” Morton said. “It’s a prime time for our nation to take a look at our practices.”