WENATCHEE — As the K-12 school year began this week, school resource officers were absent at four Chelan County school districts.
Sheriff Brian Burnett said he believes Gov. Jay Inslee's mandate requiring school employees and on-site contractors and volunteers to receive a COVID-19 vaccination infringes on his deputies' rights. The sheriff's action puts school resource officer programs on hold at the Cascade, Cashmere, Chelan and Manson school districts.
"We have employee rights that I think are being invaded on and I don't believe the governor should be doing this vaccination mandate," Burnett said. "That's not to say myself or staff ... are what everybody refers to as 'anti-vaxxers.' I think the big piece of that is once we lose personal rights, they're gone."
Inslee issued the mandate on Aug. 18.
None of the current SROs have reached out to Burnett to say they're uncomfortable with the vaccine mandate. "This was a decision from myself," Burnett said.
He added he hasn't asked any of his deputies if they're vaccinated and doesn't plan to do so.
Representatives from the Wenatchee Police Department and Douglas County Sheriff's Office said on Wednesday they're continuing with their school resource programs. The East Wenatchee Police Department won't have an SRO program until the 2022-2023 school year, but Assistant Chief Erik Hampton said they'll comply with vaccine requirements.
The Chelan County Sheriff's Office has not signed contracts to provide SROs for the 2021-2022 school year with the four districts, Burnett said, but there were verbal agreements in place before the mandate was enacted indicating deputies would continue to be a presence in schools. School districts often agree to pay 50-60% of the deputy's salary.
"With the right people in there, working with the right school administration, (SRO programs) provide a much safer learning environment," Burnett said. "It also builds relationships with law enforcement officers with students and staff alike."
As for resolutions, Burnett hopes Inslee won't require SROs to be vaccinated.
"The easiest way to resolve it: That the state would say that that's not a requirement for the sheriff's office," Burnett said of the vaccine mandate. If the governor does require SROs to be vaccinated, the next step would be to find out which SROs, if any, aren't vaccinated and work to file an exemption.
Burnett said he'll discuss the issue with the Chelan County Deputy Sheriffs Association on Sept. 8 during a regularly scheduled labor-management meeting.
"There's a principle involved here, if we're willing to go down that road and just what that looks like. The ultimate piece of that would be just that no, this doesn't involve us and we're not going to have to file for exemptions and we would just do business as usual."
He continued, "But in the interim, we're going to stay in close contact with the schools. I've told them, 'Hey, keep the SRO assigned to your school on speed dial, they want to do a good job for you,'" Burnett said.
In the meantime, those deputies will be reassigned to patrol duty.
"We'll just be doing a little more proactive patrols around the schools to make sure people know that we're still close by and available when needed," Burnett said.