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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Guards in Spokane schools would be armed under district proposal

A sergeant with the Spokane Police Department will supervise up to 17 armed guards in Spokane’s schools, if an agreement between the city of Spokane and Spokane Public Schools is approved Monday by the City Council.

It’s unclear when those guards will carry firearms because the teachers union that represents them is still at loggerheads with the school administration over what they consider a change in working conditions.

Mark Sterk, the former Spokane County sheriff who is now the school district’s director of safety, security, transportation and risk management, said he anticipated seeing armed guards in schools by January. Before that can happen, the union must agree to the changes, and the guards must be trained as first responders in case of an emergency.

In effect, both Sterk and union representatives said the guards would be very similar to police officers.

“They’ll be in full uniform. They will look very much like a Spokane police officer,” Sterk said. “We’ll be responsible for making sure that resource officers will be meeting all the requirements that are needed to be armed. … Nobody’s doing it like this. This is a new model.”

Rebecca Powell, with the Spokane Education Association, the union that represents the guards, said the guards essentially would become cops.

“Carrying a gun and being a commissioned officer carries a lot of responsibility,” Powell said. “They’re going to be law enforcement. They’ll have the same responsibility. They didn’t get hired to do that. … We’re trying to make sure they still have choices here.”

Arming Spokane school guards as a safety measure was unveiled by school administrators in early 2013, following the December 2012 school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. The roll-out for the plan was intentionally slow and methodical at first, but in the past year the police department and district have investigated ways to make it happen.

Police Chief Frank Straub proposed making the guards reserve officers of his department but the idea was denied by the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission because the guards were employees of the school district, not the police department, Sterk said.

Instead, Straub created a school resource officer commission, which placed liability for arming the guards within the police department and led Straub to recommend that a sergeant oversee the program. The district will reimburse the city $125,000 a year to pay for the sergeant’s time.

“He’s a full-time contracted employee to the Spokane Public Schools,” Sterk said, noting that the police department is expected to assign a sergeant in the coming week. Sterk said he already had expressed a need for a second supervisor to school district officials.

Straub was out of town and not available to comment for this article. Councilman Jon Snyder, chairman of the city’s public safety committee, suggested he supported the agreement.

“If a public employee is armed within Spokane city limits, it’s usually done under the auspices of the police department,” Snyder said. “This makes the police department ultimately responsible for their training.”

Currently, there are 13 school guards and one supervisor. The district also employs five “security response specialists,” who patrol the district’s facilities when school is not in session. Sterk has requested four additional guards and one more supervisor.

Sterk said arming the guards was integral to stopping a school shooting, though he acknowledged that the school guard at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999 was carrying a firearm and unable to prevent the massacre. “If the officers are not armed, what they become is a uniformed usher. All they can do is grab kids and get them out of harm’s way,” Sterk said. “If they are armed, they can help to confront the threat and stop it.”

Powell, with the union, said the union hasn’t discussed or taken a stand on the larger question of whether schools should be staffed with armed officers. Instead, it’s trying to work through the specific request to arm some of their members.

“This is pretty unusual, what they’re asking and what they’re trying to do,” she said. “It gets very complicated for us. It’s not only about compensation.”

Jenny Rose, the union president, said a year ago the union sought an annual $10,000 stipend for each guard who carried a gun, a request rebuffed by the administration.

“If they’re going to pay a sergeant, it’s going to be more than what we wanted a year ago. They said then, ‘We don’t have the money, we don’t have the money,’ ” Rose said. “Nothing is resolved yet.”

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