Violence, Destruction Mar Seattle Protests Over the Death of George Floyd

Seattle Police Department officers stand guard during protests in late May.

Following a rush of similar moves across the country, the Seattle School Board voted Wednesday to suspend a partnership that stations five armed police officers at Seattle schools.

Board members unanimously approved the measure.

The suspension is just one part of a broader proposal to improve school climate for Black students, who last year made up nearly half of students referred to police across the district but just 14% of enrollment at Seattle Public Schools (SPS), according to district data.

The proposal also includes a provision to use unarmed rather than armed police officers for security at district events, and directs the superintendent to create a Black studies curriculum.

Board members Zachary DeWolf, Brandon Hersey and Chandra Hampson introduced the resolution earlier this month as a wave of other school districts ended their agreements with local law enforcement agencies in the wake of local and nationwide uproar over police brutality against Black people. Edmonds school officials voted on Tuesday to remove police officers from three schools.

The proposal originally called for a one-year moratorium of the district's city-funded partnership with the Seattle Police Department (SPD), whose stated goal is youth crime prevention. DeWolf, the board's president, said board members have since revised it to make the suspension indefinite after conversations with South Seattle-based advocacy organization WA-Bloc, which helped organize petitions calling for the district to remove officers from schools.

"This whole issue needs a restart. [SPS] will have a relationship with SPD," DeWolf said in a Monday text message. Even without SPD officers stationed in schools, he said, "SPD will still have interactions with SPS when there is a clear danger to students or our schools, as in violent crimes or gun violence."

"We believe a community process will help us build out what that should look like and we just don't know how long that will take."

The decision is disappointing, said Assistant Police Chief Adrian Diaz. Some of the officers act as role models and mentors. One officer runs a chess club. Others regularly help students out of crisis or counsel them out of decisions that could lead them toward the juvenile justice system, Diaz said.

Though many say the school officers here have a largely friendly reputation, student advocates for their removal say SPD presence in schools -- especially while armed and uniformed -- is an intimidating one to many Black students.

The officers are all stationed in the central and southern regions of the city, all of which enroll a higher percentage of Black children than the districtwide average of 14%. The district pays SPD to provide officers at certain dances and high school football and basketball games: In the 2019-20 school year, the district paid SPD nearly $120,000, district records show.

Black children, and especially Black boys, are often perceived as less innocent and than white children, according to research, resulting in disproportionate discipline and police referral rates.

A Seattle Times analysis of district data from last year found the majority of district police referrals of Black students did not involve the five schools where officers are stationed (South Shore PK-8, Aki Kurose Middle School, Denny International Middle School, Washington Middle School and Garfield High School). The officers there haven't made any arrests of students since the program's inception, the district said.

One underlying problem, board members say, is that there are no real guidelines about when it's appropriate for a school employee to call 911, an issue brought up last summer after a white teacher called the police on a Black fifth grader for a nonviolent issue. Because she told police she felt unsafe, the teacher's action was protected by a clause in her union's contract with the district.

The resolution calls for clearer protocols for involving law enforcement that minimize racial bias, which would include adjustments to labor contracts with district employees.

At Wednesday's board meeting, Manuela Slye, president of the Seattle Council Parent Teacher Student Association, spoke in favor of the move but asked the board to engage and listen to the school communities affected before developing alternatives.

Hodan Mohamed, whose daughter just finished 1st grade at South Shore PK-8, where one officer was stationed, said in an interview that she doesn't want police to be inside school buildings. But she wishes officials spent more time speaking with families about why the district has had a relationship with police in the first place, and what alternatives exist, such as stationing an officer outside.

"The process happened so quick. Do we as parents want police officers interrogating our children at school? Of course not," she said. "But, do we want our children to also be protected?" Yes, she said.

A handful of parents at the meeting asked the district to keep police stationed at schools. A parent of a Garfield High School student, for instance, expressed concern at the meeting about ending the district's relationship with SPD without offering reforms, such as requiring officers to wear plain clothes or banning them from carrying weapons. Some officers have close, mentor-like relationships with students, another parent said.

Hersey said he and other board members are brainstorming alternatives to help students feel safe and supported on campus, such as developing mentorship programs.

Seattle's neighboring districts are weighing the same decision. Edmonds School Board members voted unanimously this week against renewing contracts that placed police officers at Meadowdale, Mountlake Terrace and Edmonds-Woodway high schools, My Edmonds News reported. Earlier this month, the Tacoma teachers union passed a resolution asking school officials to remove police officers from the district's five comprehensive high schools.

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