Sitting in the cafeteria of an elementary school on Friday, Snohomish County Sheriff John Lovick reminisced about his childhood in rural Louisiana, when he never had to worry about a gunman bursting into his classroom or other dangers that have plagued the nation’s schools in recent years.
Surrounded by schoolchildren and their parents in the school near Mill Creek, Lovick announced the creation of a new unit within the sheriff’s office that will provide extra security to schools in unincorporated Snohomish County.
The School Services Unit was created as a direct response to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut in December, according to the sheriff’s office.
“We want kids to feel safe in school. We only want them to focus on reading, that math, that history,” Lovick said.
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Placing officers in schools is a change in strategy seen by police departments and school districts across the nation, which have, in recent years, cut programs that place armed officers in the schools. Lovick said the School Services Unit is the first of its kind.
“With what I am seeing our officers doing right now, this is going to have a huge impact. This is going to make a difference in the lives of these young people,” said Lovick. “They’re going to know (deputies) as friends; they’re going to know them as mentors. There are a lot of schools, and we have a job to do, but we’ll get the job done.”
The six deputies assigned to the School Services Unit will have a large area to patrol: more than 100 public and private schools spread out over nearly 2,000 square miles.
The deputies will handle the massive assignment like a patrol officer would handle their “beat,” the sheriff’s office said. They’ll be assigned to a geographical area broken up by school-district boundaries; they’ll also share information and resources with other police departments.
School districts in unincorporated Snohomish County will still have four School Resource Officers from the sheriff’s office and private security working at assigned schools, according to the sheriff’s office.
School Resource Officers have dwindled in the county in recent years, but are still considered the “gold standard” for armed police presence at schools because they’re assigned day in and day out to specific schools, the sheriff’s office said.
The Everett Police Department still has a School Resource Officer program.
School Services Unit deputies will work with School Resource Officers, but they will also patrol schools that do not have assigned deputies.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Scott Parker, who heads the School Services Unit, said their strategy is multifaceted.
“Being involved in the schools and having a more visible presence allows the students, teachers and staff to see us as a friend … someone they can confide in,” Parker said.
Lovick said he took deputies from other divisions to create the School Services Unit, including from patrol and from the commercial-vehicle emphasis bureau. He would ultimately like to see the new unit grow to nearly 18 deputies.
“We needed to prioritize things. I could have waited, but we don’t have time to wait. When you are looking at school safety, there’s no reason to wait,” Lovick said.
The new division will be funded by the sheriff’s office, although the exact cost has not been determined. Lovick said he has also asked the Snohomish County Council and the state Legislature for the extra funding.
During Friday’s news conference at Woodside Elementary School, students, parents and an administrator spoke in support of the new program.
Bella Hardy, a fifth-grader at the Everett School District school, said that after Adam Lanza, 20, fatally shot 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14 she has questioned her safety at school.
Bella’s mother, Carolyn Hardy, added, “I don’t think there can be a price on our children’s safety.”
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or email@example.com. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.