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School, police officials in area say proposal needs more discussion

Coeur d’Alene Officers Jon Spranget, front, and Andy Sterling stop at Skyway Elementary on Friday. (Kathy Plonka)
Coeur d’Alene Officers Jon Spranget, front, and Andy Sterling stop at Skyway Elementary on Friday. (Kathy Plonka)

Police and school officials across the Inland Northwest reacted cautiously to the idea of armed officers in every school, saying they’ll watch how the proposal plays out in Congress but warning that solutions to school violence are more complex.

“It sort of takes my breath away,” said Coeur d’Alene School District Superintendent Hazel Bauman. “And yet, to some extent in our secondary schools we’re already doing that.”

Other school leaders were similarly circumspect.

The Central Valley School District uses some sheriff’s deputies in its schools. “Whether that model is appropriate as a national intervention for school safety should be vetted through the national discussion that is sure to come in the near future,” Superintendent Ben Small said.

Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Shelley Redinger said, “We believe we will get some state and federal guidance on the issue of how we can better protect our students and staff.”

School-based officers – some armed, some not – are spread thinly across school districts in the Inland Northwest. Putting an armed guard in every school, as the National Rifle Association proposed Friday, would cost significantly more than communities spend now on school safety, though.

Nationally, about 23,200 schools – less than one-fourth of all public schools – had armed security staff in the 2009-’10 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Spokane Mayor David Condon and police Chief Frank Straub said they haven’t seen any specific proposals and suggested the idea was part of a debate that’s being driven at the national rather than local level.

Straub doubts he currently has enough officers to spare to put one in every school all the time.

“But the bigger question,” he suggested, “is would that be completely effective?”

Spokane police provide 12 officers for the school district, which has six high schools, six middle schools, 35 elementary schools and four special schools.

“We will be looking at how best to ensure they can provide the safety and security our students and staff deserve,” Redinger said. “Arming officers is a serious discussion we would want to have with our community.”

The Post Falls Police Department has one officer at the high school and one who covers the other nine public schools in the city. Their presence certainly deters crime, police Chief R. Scot Haug said, but expanding the coverage would be a tall hurdle.

“I’m a realist, I understand that it’s very expensive to try and do something like that,” Haug said. “I think that’s going to be the major challenge: How do you bridge that gap of financially being able to put an officer in every school?”

Post Falls Superintendent Jerry Keane said he’d be all for an officer in each school. “The ones we have do great for us in a lot of different ways,” he said.

But Keane added he’s not as sure about using armed guards who may not have the same level of training as police officers.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich says he supports more deputies in schools in his jurisdiction, but it’s a matter of resources.

His agency provides seven school resource officers to watch over students in the Central Valley, East Valley, West Valley, Mead, Liberty and Freeman school districts. The sheriff also is vying to bring back an eliminated position for Deer Park schools, on top of his desire to replace 32 deputies lost to budget cuts the past three years.

“I’d love to put a deputy in every school. I’d really also love to have deputies in every district and drop the crime rate in the community,” Knezovich said. “The safer the community, the safer our schools are.”

Nicole Hensley, Jody Lawrence-Turner and David Wasson of The Spokesman-Review contributed to this report.