The Seattle School Board advanced a proposal Wednesday calling for a one-year moratorium on a partnership between Seattle Public Schools (SPS) and the Seattle Police Department, an arrangement that provides five armed police officers across five city schools.
If it receives approval from the full School Board on June 24, the district will become one of several school systems across the country to remove police officers from school campuses, including Portland and Minneapolis, where a white police officer killed George Floyd.
The suspension would be 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 SPS enrollment, according to district data. The broader 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.
The partnership, started in 2008 after the shooting deaths of five teenagers, is funded by the city and assigns officers focused on crime prevention to five schools: South Shore PK-8, Aki Kurose Middle School, Denny International Middle School, Washington Middle School and Garfield High School.
Though the officers are focused on building friendly relationships with students, and haven’t made any arrests since the partnership’s inception, their role and presence in schools have come under heightened scrutiny amid national uproar over racist policing. All the officers are stationed at schools in central and southern regions of the city, and that enroll a higher percentage of Black children than the districtwide average of 14%.
The removal of the officers was a central demand of a student-led protest last week. Two petitions authored by parents and students calling for an end to the partnership garnered over 18,000 signatures as of this week, according to WA-BLOC, a grassroots advocacy organization based in the Rainier Beach area.
Kidist Habte, a student who worked to create one of the petitions, says removing the officers is important because of the discomfort and fear that police presence can trigger for Black students, even if they’ve built strong relationships in their buildings.
“One good experience with a cop doesn’t take away the bad experiences that Black and brown students have had with police,” said Habte, a junior at Rainier Beach High School and co-founder of student advocacy group Black and Brown Minds Matter. If the officers provided counseling and support for students, she suggests the district provide non-police replacements.
On Monday, the Seattle Education Association teachers union passed a resolution asking for removal of the officers.
At Garfield High, an armed officer can be seen at the school’s entrance every day, said Jesse Hagopian, a teacher there and a prominent ethnic studies and Black studies curriculum advocate. Though he personally hasn’t heard of any major conflicts between the school’s officer and students, Hagopian, who was pepper-sprayed by Seattle police in 2015 after speaking at a Martin Luther King Day rally, says he still opposes the officer’s presence.
“If any other organization in Seattle had killed a mother in front of her kids, we would say that organization is not allowed in our schools,” said Hagopian, referring to Charleena Lyles, a Black, pregnant mother who died in 2017 after Seattle police shot her seven times. “We should take that same action with the police, even if the individuals (stationed at SPS) are good officers,” he said.
The moratorium is baked into a larger resolution “affirming Seattle Public Schools’ commitment to Black students.” It calls for clearer policy around the involvement of law enforcement in schools, which would include an examination of the language in labor contracts between the district and its employees.
The current contract with the teachers union, for example, says that teachers can call 911 if they feel unsafe on the job — a vague clause that School Board members believe leaves room for implicit bias, especially when the call is about a student. Last year, an incident where a white teacher called the police on a Black fifth grader drew uproar and subsequent discussion over that clause. District and School Board policy also covers principals and administrators calling the police, but doesn’t provide many guidelines on when it’s appropriate.
“Any human can call 911 — that doesn’t mean it’s not an important for us to take a very strong perspective and provide very clear guidance and expectations for what we believe is an appropriate time to bring in law enforcement,” said Chandra Hampson, a School Board member.
The union will form a work group to examine this clause and possibly reopen the contract to modify it, said Gwendolyn Jimerson, vice president of the teachers union.
Black children, and especially Black boys, are often perceived as less innocent and more adult than white children, according to research, resulting in disproportionate discipline and police referral rates.
Last school year, Black students in Seattle made up nearly 50% of the 99 students that school employees referred to the police, but only 14% of the district’s student body. Latino students were the next largest student group for police referrals, at 20%. White students made up about 15%, though they comprise nearly half of SPS students.
Of the five SPS schools where police are stationed, all but one — Aki Kurose — had students referred to the police last year.
Up to and after the final vote, the district will work with the Seattle Council PTSA, a citywide parent-teacher association, to collect feedback from families affiliated with the schools where the officers are stationed. Most of the responses gathered so far about the officers have been positive, said Manuela Slye, the PTSA president, but the organization is still early in its process.
The parents and students who wrote in with positive feedback described the officers as mentors, Slye said. If the district were to move forward with removing the partnership, she’d like to see another program in its place that focuses on crime prevention, substance use, and consent.
This week, Slye has arranged for two Seattle students to meet with police to discuss the partnership.
Hampson and Brandon Hersey, School board members and co-authors of the resolution along with School Board President Zachary DeWolf, said there could be a future version of the program that doesn’t involve armed officers.
“They can show up in their street clothes on, and still do their jobs,” Hersey said.
Pressure to remove officers has also arisen in other districts in the state, including Highline, Edmonds and Tacoma. Eighty-four of Washington’s 100 largest school districts have police officers assigned to schools, according to a 2017 report from the ACLU.
As more school districts have added police officers, the number of student arrests has also risen, the report says.
Staff writer Katherine Long contributed reporting.