Before the 2017-18 school year began, the Tacoma School District disarmed nine security officers who previously carried handguns as part of their duties.
Those officers want their 9 mm Glocks back, and a hearing next month might decide whether they get them.
“None of them are happy about this decision,” said Margaret Englund, the union representative for the patrol officers, who are part of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 286. “They dress them up looking like police. They put them in a marked patrol car. They put lights and sirens on top of the patrol car, and they take away the biggest item that protects them.
“They’re ready to respond at any given moment to anything that’s happening at any one of the campuses. When they stripped them of that ability to provide that armed presence, we think that they really did a disservice to the community of Tacoma.”
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District officials say that if someone has to draw a gun at a school, they want it to be a Tacoma police officer.
“The superintendent felt very strongly that if we have an incident at a school that requires someone to draw a gun, we would be much more comfortable having that be a highly trained Tacoma police officer than anyone else,” Tacoma School District spokesman Dan Voelpel said recently.
To be clear: the disarmed School Patrol Officers are employees of the district, not the commissioned Tacoma police officers assigned to five of the district’s high schools and the sergeant that oversees them. Those police officers, called School Resource Officers, still carry their weapons.
The school patrol officers are not assigned to specific locations but are dispatched to individual schools as needed, 24 hours per day, seven days a week. They can respond if there’s a break-in or a school has a problem with an out-of-control student or an upset parent.
Voelpel said the district thinks the force started in the 1970s, but that there aren’t records to verify that. It’s also unclear whether the officers have carried weapons from the start. The union says the officers have carried firearms for more than 20 years.
Voelpel said three of the district’s patrol officers have gone through the 720-hour law enforcement academy that Tacoma police officers go through. The other six went through the 250-hour law enforcement reserve academy. All were required to qualify at a firing range multiple times a year.
Comparatively, he said, Tacoma police officers “go through a psychological evaluation, they go through the full police academy and experience and then a period of time as a rookie officer assigned to a field training officer.”
It’s unclear how many times a school patrol officer has fired a gun on duty.
Voelpel said there was an accidental discharge last year. No one was hurt. A patrol officer also might have fired during a nighttime burglary at a school years ago, but there are no historical records to verify that, he said.
Superintendent Carla Santorno made the decision to take away the school patrol officers’ guns as the district was in the process of renewing the insurance policy that covers those employees.
Voelpel said the insurance company asked for an updated patrol manual, which hadn’t been changed since the early 2000s. The district realized it didn’t have updated guidance on when the patrol officers could use deadly force, he said.
That led to the discussion about whether it made sense to continue arming the officers, Voelpel said.
Following the decision to disarm the officers, the union filed a grievance, alleging that the action violated its contract. It also filed a complaint with the state Public Employment Relations Commission, alleging that disarming the officers amounted to an unfair labor practice and that the district should have bargained the issue.
According to an August email filed as part of the complaint, the district’s director of labor relations, Forrest Griek, wrote Englund:
“Our new general counsel office is reviewing the whole model from a liability standpoint as part of an ongoing compliance review of systems district-wide. Secondly, we’re renewing the insurance coverage Sept. 1 and indications are that we will not be able to obtain sufficient coverage at a reasonable price. ... As a result, we are compelled to review our program and question the rationale behind the guns.”
If mediation in the coming weeks isn’t successful, the issue will go before a hearing examiner April 19 and 20 for testimony.
The union and the school district will provide written closing arguments after that, and then the hearing examiner will issue a written decision in the following months.
That decision could range from sending everyone back to the negotiating table, finding that the school district had the authority to take away the guns or finding the district did not have that authority and ordering that the officers be rearmed.
Englund said the union’s hope is that the firearms will be reinstated.
District spokesman Voelpel said school officials have offered to talk with the union about the issue.
“We’ve offered to discuss with them how to mitigate their job responsibilities given the fact that we removed the guns from their job description,” he said. “We’ve offered to discuss that and what alternatives we might be able to put in place that they might feel comfortable with.”
He declined to provide specifics, saying those details should be left for the negotiating table, not public discussion.
The district owns the firearms, which Voelpel said have been given to the Tacoma Police Department to hold, pending the outcome of the union’s grievance.
The union argues the school patrol officers are trained to carry firearms, not to be unarmed.
Some districts allow armed officers
The state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction doesn’t track which of the state’s about 300 districts have armed security guards, spokeswoman Stephanie Liden said.
“But we do know of a few districts that do it, just because people have come forth and asked about it, like Toppenish and Kiona-Benton,” Liden said.
However, she wasn’t sure if those guards are district employees.
A nearby district that arms part of its security staff is the Highline School District.
Scott Logan, the district’s Chief Operations Officer, said the district has nine armed school security officers. They periodically train with King County sheriff’s deputies to sharpen their skills, including practicing building searches together.
The security officers also do firearms training and training on deescalation and restorative justice, Logan said.
The Highline force has been around for more than 30 years, and Logan said he’s not aware of a time that a security officer has had to discharge his or her weapon.
“Our employees do not go after a bad guy. They protect the good guy,” he said. “That’s the difference between a police officer and a district employee. We want them to be the tools and eyes and ears for law enforcement and to help wherever they’re requested.”
The firearms serve as a deterrent, Logan said, but he added that all district staff work to make students feel comfortable speaking up if they hear about a potential safety problem.
Washington Education Association spokesman Rich Wood provided a general statement from union president Kim Mead addressing firearms at the state’s schools.
It read in part: “WEA believes that educators should not be armed and that guns and other weapons should not be allowed in schools.”
Wood said the union was not familiar with Tacoma’s decision.
“Not speaking specifically to the situation in Tacoma, we make a distinction between commissioned police officers who are armed versus arming educators or other school employees, which we do not support,” Wood said.
Tacoma police spokeswoman Loretta Cool said her agency has not weighed in on the Tacoma School District’s decision one way or the other.
The police department did help with the retrieval of the guns and worked to make the transition smooth, Cool said.