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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Group questions Spokane Public Schools’ use-of-force policy

Spokane Public Schools rescource officer at Ferris High School, Becky Wilkey, has a visible presence in the F building hallway during the noon hour, March 7, 2013 in Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A coalition of parents, advocates and local organizations petitioned Spokane Public Schools to revise the district’s use-of-force policy earlier this month, expressing concerns the policy was too similar to the Spokane Police Department’s.

“While the Spokane Police Department’s policy may be appropriate for officers patrolling the streets, it is not sufficient for officers interacting with students in a school environment,” the letter said.

Nikki Lockwood, a parent of two daughters in the district and a member of the coalition, told the school board about a special education student who was thrown to the ground last year by resource officers.

“This doesn’t sit well with me,” she said. “And I can’t see the educational or therapeutic value to the student.”

The Every Student Counts Alliance is comprised of a number of local organizations and is coordinated by the ACLU of Washington.

“I think the use-of-force policy should be significantly different than what is accepted for a law enforcement officer on the street,” said Vanessa Hernandez, the youth policy director for the ACLU of Washington.

District officials were receptive to the group’s concerns but highlighted the work the district has done so far already.

Mark Sterk, the district’s director of safety, risk management and transportation, said he plans to sit down with Every Student Counts Alliance members to discuss their concerns.

However, he emphasized the work the district has accomplished. Sterk, who became director almost two years ago, said the district wasn’t tracking arrests and standardized arrest protocol didn’t exist when he arrived.

If a student was caught with marijuana at some high schools, the principal would choose to handle the discipline in-house. At others, they would ask the resource officers to arrest the student. When a student is arrested by a resource officer, they enter the juvenile justice system.

Now, Sterk said, officers uniformly try to avoid arresting students, if possible.

“There really is no tangible result, in terms of discipline,” Sterk said. “It’s not like our community wants to hammer our kids.”

As part of the effort, the district now tracks arrests and use-of-force incidents. There have been 30 arrests this year.

According to a report presented to the school board earlier this month, 160 arrests had been made by this same time last year. Overall, there were 800 arrests in the 2015-16 school year, Sterk said.

The district also is now evaluating use of force. So far this year, officers have used handcuffs on one student, escorted seven students and used more vigorous control techniques on nine students.

“The enforcement guidelines are having a huge impact,” Sterk said.

As for the proposed use-of-force policy changes, Sterk said he is OK with the majority of them, although he does think some are more about education and less about policy.

“I didn’t see anything in their version that really caused me any heartburn,” he said.

Hernandez said she has appreciated the district’s response, but still wants to see change to the use-of-force policy.

“I think there is a lot of work to be done at clarifying the role of those officers in school; what we can do in the educational environment to prevent those kinds of situations in the first place,” she said.