Parents, students speak out as Olympia decides to return to having police in schools


The Olympia School District is reestablishing its relationship with the Olympia Police Department, in hopes of reinstating School Resource Officers (SROs) on campuses.

But, although the decision was made after guns were brought to Capital High School twice in the first week of school, that decision wasn't made easily. The Olympia School Board conducted what became a five-hour meeting where a dozen people spoke and nearly a dozen amendments were made to the policy.

Julian Gabbard was the only student to speak to the school board. The Avanti High School junior who used to attend Capital High School said he's been involved in activism at his schools for years, including in walkouts. He said he's also one of two Black students he knows of at his school, and he noted he was one of maybe two Black people at the board meeting.

Gabbard said the recent talk of police officers in schools feels like the wrong type of change, one that doesn't break out of what he called the "white comfort zone."

"I worry about the Black and undocumented students that attend Capital High School and that are in this district, that they will have the safeness of what school is supposed to be shattered," he said.

He said as a student, he isn't at all comfortable with police being in schools regularly. It's not because he's doing anything illegal, he said, but because he said he knows men with the same level of power in a police uniform have unjustly killed people of color.

He said statistically there's no evidence to support SROs. From Gabbard's research, he said data shows that having officers present causes higher rates of arrest, exclusionary discipline and high rates of violence.

"But what you're trying to do is just to ease the sense of danger that we, as Americans, are feeling," Gabbard said. "And while I do appreciate that, I agree with only any policy or security practice that prevents these things from happening."

Gabbard said the district already tried SROs, and it didn't work. He said he'd like to hear some discussion of how the previous implementation of SROs went and how much they contributed to school safety prior to 2020.

Matthew Dorcy told the board he was commenting as a community member and not a parent because he withdrew his daughter from Capital High School after the two gun events unfolded.

He said his family had a lot of conversations around the house after the first incident happened on the first day of school, trying to decide if his daughter should remain enrolled.

"After a weekend of discussions we really wanted to continue giving our daughter the opportunity to be on campus," Dorcy said. "After the first period of the first day on Monday, after I dropped her off and before I even got back to the highway, alerts started coming back in, and I immediately went back to the school and pulled her out."

Dorcy said he's heard it said that SROs wouldn't prevent a gun from showing up on a campus, but he's not convinced. He said a relationship with the young man who brought a loaded weapon to school could have prevented the situation from happening.

He said his family isn't the only one from the Griffin School District, which feeds into Capital High School, who is talking about the situation. He said the Griffin School Board recently discussed whether OSD is continuing to serve Griffin students well. He urged the Olympia school board to vote to bring SROs back.

Jason Cornelius, a CHS parent, told the school board his gut reaction to the incidents was to pull his daughter from the high school.

"There has to be a safer place, a more stable place and a better learning environment out there," Cornelius said.

He said his youngest is a sophomore who has joined the band and has a group of friends at Capital. He said she has big plans for the future.

"I'm asking you to provide a safe and stable place for her to learn and grow," he said. "I'm asking you to reinstate the SRO program."

He said he believes the Olympia Police Department and the Thurston County Sheriff's Office have professional officers with up-to-date training who are ready to provide services to Olympia students.

Megan Green spoke in support of SROs as well. She said staff and parents at Capital asked the board to reinstate them two years ago but were stonewalled.

Green said there hasn't been any concrete evidence presented that SROs have had any negative effects in Olympia schools, especially regarding students of color. She questioned why the district wouldn't be proactive in ensuring that isn't an issue.

"SROs can be a very valuable part of school," Green said. "While not under the illusion that they will prevent everything, they are an extra set of eyes and ears."

But Stephanie Scott, a Lacey resident, spoke in support of Gabbard, the student speaker, and against reinstating an SRO program. She said she strongly supports young leaders.

"I believe there is power in coming together across jurisdictions, to think critically and creatively about how to provide a certain safe learning and work environment that allows all of our students to thrive," Scott said.

Scott said the reality is that school shootings are rare, and it isn't because SROs are preventing them. She cited a study from Texas State University that found school shootings typically ended when the shooter was restrained by an unarmed staff member, or they simply stopped shooting.

"What we do know is that policing in schools increases arrest rates, and that marginalized students are the ones disproportionately targeted for police intervention," Scott said.

She said data shows that the arrest rates for schools with SROs are 3.5 times higher than schools that do not have SROs. Students of color are arrested or referred to law enforcement at significantly higher rates than their white peers, and students with disabilities are arrested or referred to law enforcement nearly three times the rate of non-disabled students, Scott said.

"We cannot ignore that SROs contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, shifting youth into the juvenile justice system, which places them at an increased risk of being rearrested and ending up in juvenile or adult prisons," Scott said.

Scott challenged the notion that no local information on the impacts of SROs was presented. She said because the district would pull its SROs from the Olympia Police Department, the district has to take into account the situations OPD officers have found themselves in.

She referenced the death of Timothy Green, a Black man who was shot and killed by police last year. The incident is still under investigation; two of the officers involved still serve in the OPD.

Instead, Scott believes the answer is significant investment in mental health counselors, psychologists, nurses, social workers, and more educators.

Policy amendments

Board member Hilary Seidel presented the board with several amendments to the School Safety and Security Services Program policy.

Seidel's main point was to adopt a policy that establishes a formal, collaborative relationship with the Public Safety Division of the City of Olympia, not simply puts police in schools. Her amendment to the agreement adds an emphasis on a holistic approach, including consultation, multi-tiered support systems, crisis response unit members, and uniformed officers.

Another amendment includes having a process in place for placing officers that involves students, family, staff and the board. It also ensures there's an evaluation process for the program, as well as the requirement to conduct surveys and listening sessions with students, family and staff.

Another amendment updates language around SROs becoming involved in formal school discipline situations that are the responsibility of school administration. Seidel said striking the word "formal" was an idea that came to her after speaking to students.

"I think that the rationale for it was that students have shared often that what they consider to be discipline, and what is technically formal discipline, we may not have agreement on that," Seidel said. "Personally, I know many of us have heard from students who felt they experienced discipline interaction, but there was no record of that interaction, in which case one would determine that's not formal discipline."

Director Talauna Reed said she wanted to add to the amendment some language that ensures all discipline-related incidents are documented, to avoid confusion in the future. Along with that, she said police and school personnel should be prohibited from speaking to minors about potential criminal conduct without consent from a parent or guardian. The policy already exists but has exceptions for situations such as human trafficking and imminent threat/danger.

Lastly, the board agreed that at the beginning of each school year the district will conduct a gun safety awareness campaign in all schools to provide education for both students and staff. The program may also include providing gun safes to families that need them.