At first glance, Pierce County Sheriff’s Deputy Ken Board strikes an imposing figure at Bethel High School, with his deep-navy police uniform, a Taser strapped to his left thigh, and a .40-caliber Glock riding his right hip.
But the burly officer with a teddy bear smile easily blends into the lunchtime crowd of jeans-clad teens. A youth in a lime-green T-shirt lightheartedly asks the deputy for a quarter. Board chats about Police Explorer activities with junior Chris Johnson.
They’re used to seeing Board, who spends anywhere from a few minutes to five hours at the school every day to help provide security.
“I think it makes the school feel more safe and secure,” said Heather Johnson, a junior at the 1,250-student building.
Officials in the Tacoma School District would agree.
Grappling with the Jan. 3 shooting death of a student at Foss High School, Tacoma hopes to join Bethel and several other Pierce County school districts in assigning commissioned sheriff’s deputies or police officers to schools full time.
The so-called “school resource officers” typically work in conjunction with district-employed security personnel to boost security efforts and build positive relationships with students and staff.
The officers perform duties that most school security personnel cannot: file police reports, investigate crimes, make arrests, write traffic tickets and serve as in-house links to law enforcement.
They bear weapons and the deterrent effect that comes with being a police officer.
“It’s so important to have a school resource officer. When he’s here, it’s a little calmer, especially in the parking lot,” Bethel High Principal Wanda Riley said of Board. “It has proactively decreased violent and other criminal acts.”
Board must divide his time between Bethel, two junior high schools and occasionally two elementary schools. Even so, he can give the schools more immediate and frequent service than they would otherwise receive, whether it’s to investigate the break-in of a student car or give advice on a coach’s run-in with a parent.
“Schools know they can call me and I’m there to handle any incidents,” said Board, a deputy for 25 years. “Depending on the situation, they could wait all day for a (regular patrol) deputy to get there because they’re so busy in the field.”
OFFICERS IN THE HALLS
Discussions already under way to start a school resource officer program in Tacoma took on added urgency when 17-year-old Samnang Kok was gunned down in a Foss hallway earlier this month.
Six days after the shooting, school Superintendent Charlie Milligan and Tacoma City Manager Eric Anderson announced they were exploring stationing a full-time city police officer at each of Tacoma’s five comprehensive high schools, perhaps by next school year.
They’re studying cost and timelines, but Milligan said they’ve agreed that he will ask the School Board to fund the officers for eight months at a time and Anderson will seek city funding for four months. Milligan hopes to limit the district share to $300,000, but he said it could cost more.
The shooting has also prompted the district and city police to develop a plan to improve their joint response to emergencies. Schools continue violence prevention efforts, including the Rachel’s Challenge program inspired by one of the 1999 Columbine High School victims.
It’s tough to speculate how having a school resource officer could have affected the Foss shooting.
Though Foss did not have an off-duty Tacoma police officer, a teacher “was right there” when the shooting occurred and two district security officers were at the scene within seconds, said Ken Wilson, the district’s safety, security and environmental health manager.
In addition, the shooting appears to have been directed solely at the victim. Had it been a “Columbine-type shooting,” with gunmen randomly hunting down multiple victims over an extended period of time, Wilson said, a campus-based police officer could have responded more quickly than a 911 response.
Yet he and other district officials say the key reason to hire the school resource officers would be to create relationships with students to encourage their sharing information about weapons at school, looming fights and other tips.
One of the most successful means to prevent school shootings is people alerting authorities when they hear a student discussing such plans, noted Jesus Villahermosa, Pierce Sheriff’s deputy and national expert on school safety.
“We’re talking about investing in relationships with kids at school so that they feel comfortable enough to tell us,” he said.
Besides employing its own security personnel – both armed and unarmed at high schools and unarmed at middle schools – the district hires a handful of off-duty Tacoma police to provide extra security at Mount Tahoma, Lincoln and Foss.
But since those officers work full time for the city, they don’t have much time for the school shifts.
“You have the police presence but not the relationship piece,” Milligan said.
Police-in-school programs tend to come and go depending on funding.
Tacoma School Board President Connie Rickman recalls the Tacoma “police liaison officers” at Jason Lee and Stewart junior high schools in 1978.
The program taught kids that police could be their friends. Teachers used the officers as a class resource, she said. But city budget cuts ended the program after three years.
“I would love to see that in Tacoma schools again,” she said.
More recently, Puyallup High went without a school resource officer last school year, but the Puyallup district funded a Puyallup city officer there this year, along with deputies at Rogers and Emerald Ridge high schools.
“We are not relying on grants any longer to fulfill what we believe is a high priority, security need,” Puyallup Superintendent Tony Apostle said.
District officials roundly praise the effectiveness of their school resource officers and say they wish they had more. In addition to their district security staff:
• University Place School District and the City of University Place jointly fund a full-time school resource officer who circulates around the district but is based at Curtis High.
• The Clover Park School District, Lakewood Police and grant funds support five Lakewood officers who divide their time among district middle, elementary and high schools.
• Franklin Pierce and Peninsula school districts each fund one sheriff’s deputy to serve as school resource officers.
Bethel School District reimburses the sheriff’s department for the full $200,000 cost for its three school resource officers, who work 10 months a year for the district, spokesman Mark Wenzel said.
A table of Bethel students expressed mixed opinions on the impact of having a sheriff’s deputy at school.
Some said troublemakers will do whatever they want, no matter what precautions the school takes. Some said they’d like more police in schools.
Jarrad Crawford, a junior, prefers having an officer at school.
Still, he said, “Kids feel safe, but they’re inhibited by him being an officer. I’d rather go talk to a teacher than I would him because I feel comfortable with them.”
Taiann Cadwell, a junior, believes the deputy’s presence makes the school safer.
“I think it intimidates the bad kids, because they think they could get caught more easily with a police officer at school.”
Board believes he deters problems, but the possibility of a school shooting lingers in his thoughts. He remembers that a police officer was on the Columbine campus when the shooting started.
“That is my biggest fear in the schools. It could be rival gangs coming to schools, it could be an intruder, it could be a kid (like) at Foss High School. I look at it as not ‘if,’ but ‘when’ it will happen.”
Debby Abe: 253-597-8694
How to identify the players
Three types of security personnel work to keep Tacoma’s 11 middle and high schools safe. Here’s the breakdown.
Campus security personnel:
• School district employees
• Wear “soft” uniform, including a shirt embroidered with “Campus Security”
• Patrol school interior and exterior, remove unauthorized people, respond to fights, emergencies and disciplinary incidents, form positive relationships with students, staff and parents
• Unarmed and cannot file Tacoma police reports
• Number: 23, including two each at five comprehensive high schools, and one each at Oakland Alternative High School, Remann Hall school, and 11 middle schools
District security patrol officers:
• School district employees
• Wear badges and navy uniforms similar to those of police officers
• Duties include campus security, as well as patrolling district buildings and responding to burglar alarms after school hours, investigating felony and misdemeanor crimes, initiate writing of Tacoma police reports
• Wear a bulletproof vest, carry a 9-mm automatic pistol, qualify to use district weapon and take ongoing training in weapon use, carry a radio allowing direct communication with Tacoma police, drive marked school district security patrol cars
• Number: Nine, including one each at Stadium and Wilson high schools and two each at Lincoln and Mount Tahoma high schools. Foss High started with one, but received one more for school year after Jan. 3 student shooting
Off-duty Tacoma police officers:
• Commissioned Tacoma police officers hired by district when not working for city
• Wear police uniforms and use police cars at school
• Perform many of same duties as district security and patrol officers, take police reports and make arrests. Unlike campus security personnel, they can substitute for district patrol officers
• Number: Four, including one each at Mount Tahoma and Lincoln; one added at Foss through at least January
• District truancy program hires one off-duty Tacoma police officer a day to search for students skipping school
PROPOSED: School resource officers. Among possibilities:
• Commissioned city police officers; district might contract with city
• Wear city police uniforms and use city police cars at school.
• Perform many of same duties as district security, patrol and off-duty Tacoma police, while establishing relationships with staff and students
• Number: Five, including one each at Foss, Lincoln, Mount Tahoma, Stadium, Wilson, working at same school for entire year