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Petition asks Walla Walla school leaders to rethink resource officer

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Deputy Ian Edwards cuts a pretty popular figure wherever he goes on his patrols of the Walla Walla High School campus, as shown here in 2019.

An online petition has been started demanding that Walla Walla High School do away with having a Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office deputy as school resource officer on campus.

Meeting the issue, raised even before the petition was created, head on, the Walla Walla School Board will discuss the matter at its July 21 meeting.

The change.com petition, which over 270 people had signed as of 6:30 p.m. Thursday, was started by Rosa Tobin, a Wa-Hi graduate.

In the petition, she wrote, “We should be uniting with other Washington state school districts’ recent efforts, such as the Seattle Public School District, and institutions within our own community, such as Whitman College, to divest from police.”

The petition quoted excerpts from Alex Vitale’s book, “The End of Policing,” which argues that policing in schools often targets “poor and nonwhite people.”

“There is a fundamental conflict in asking kids to treat police as mentors and counselors,” Tobin quoted from Vitale’s book.

“While officers want young people to confide in them, they are also law enforcement agents, meaning that these communications can be used as evidence and can lead very quickly to police-enforcement action, possibly even against the youth being mentored.”

Deputy Ian Edwards has been the school resource officer at Walla Walla High School since September 2018. He responded to the petition in a social media post.

“I feel like I need to say something to everyone,” Edwards wrote. “I want to just say that I absolutely love being a part of Wa-Hi in the role of SRO. My kids go to school there, too, and I truly feel like I have 1,600 kids that are kind of mine, too.”

Edwards said that some people may not understand what his role at school is.

“I think there is a big misconception that all I do there is show up in the morning and ‘find ways to get kids caught.’ This is so far from what I strive to do,” Edwards wrote.

“My door is always open, and my room is always stocked with snacks, drinks and candy. If I have any parents or students at Wa-Hi that feel I have mistreated you, I would love to speak with you personally. I truly feel like I care for and strive to help any and all students that walk into my office.”

Chief Deputy Richard Schram said the resource officer’s job is primarily educational.

“The SRO is there to be a resource, not only to the students but also the school,” Schram said. “Almost daily, the teachers, the counselors or the administration have questions for our deputy regarding the law … We don’t want (the deputy) making arrests every day. We don’t want him writing tickets every day. We want him there to be educational.”

Schram acknowledged that some statistics and issues are surfacing nationally about resource officers in schools that could be concerning to some people, but he said that what is happening nationally is not necessarily happening in Walla Walla.

He said a lot of effort was taken to find the right deputy for Walla Walla High School.

“We really worked hard to find a personality to fit in with high school students,” Schram said. “He does very, very well with those students.”

However, Tobin, in her petition, rejected the idea that police in schools are there to do anything but police.

“Police officers are police officers,” Tobin said. “They are meant to enforce the law; they are not youth mentors and/or counselors.”

Under the terms of an agreement between the Walla Walla School Board and the county, the district pays the county a sum equal to 75% of the assigned resource officer’s gross salary and benefits. Superintendent Wade Smith said in 2019 that contract is about $80,000 a year.

Tobin’s petition goes on to request that people who sign it also call and email Smith.

Smith said that despite being named on the petition, this issue is one that would be handled by the school board. He encouraged people to reach out to the school board instead of to him.

He added that he has received several emails already from people on both sides of the issue.

“The conversation was happening, and the board decided it was something it wanted to look at,” School board Vice President Derek Sarley said. “I think it’s probably time to look at how all these things are working and what makes sense for Walla Walla moving forward.”

Sarley stressed that the issue has nothing to do with Edwards or his job performance.

“There are broader conversations about the appropriate role of police in schools and how we keep students not just being safe, but also feeling safe. That’s very important,” Sarley said. “This is not about any specific concerns regarding Deputy Edwards.”

Sarley said people should submit comments at least a day before the July 21 meeting. Comments can be sent to sgolden@wwps.org.

Jeremy Burnham can be reached at jeremyburnham@wwub.com or 509-551-8896.

Reporter

Jeremy Burnham covers education and Columbia County for the Union-Bulletin. He is a recent graduate of Eastern Washington University, where he studied journalism, and is an Eastern Eagle fanatic.