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School resource officer position reviewed at Walla Walla School District board meeting

  • Updated
  • 2 min to read
WWPS district office

No action was taken regarding the future of the school resource officer at Walla Walla High School at Tuesday’s Walla Walla School District board meeting.

The meeting included a presentation by Superintendent Wade Smith and Wa-Hi Principal Ron Higgins on the district’s relationship with the law enforcement officer role.

After the presentation, board members expressed desire to hear feedback from parents in a future survey. Further discussion could take place at a future time.

The issue comes as districts across the country examine their partnerships with law enforcement amid a nationwide racial crisis and uprising over police violence. Some schools, including ones in Seattle, have ended their school resource officer programs.

In Walla Walla a petition was started to remove the resource officer from the high school. Another petition was then started in a movement to retain the position.

The discussion was added to last night’s school board meeting before either petition was started.

With school board meetings being held virtually amid the COVID-19 pandemic, public comment is currently being taken in the form of email submissions before the meetings.

While school board President Sam Wells said in the meeting that the board received “many” emails regarding the issue, the emails were not read publicly.

Wells said this morning the majority of the emails sent were in support of the school resource officer program. He said the district received more than 50 emails.

Smith and Higgins’ presentation focused on the duties performed by the Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office deputy assigned to the school. Smith explained that a deputy was assigned at the high school from 2001 to 2015. After a one-year absence of the officer, a new contract was reached in 2016 to continue the program.

The school pays the county a sum equal to 75% of the deputy’s pay, since he works about 75% of his year at the school. It’s equal to about $80,000.

“The name, ‘student resource officer,’ really is at the heart of it,” Higgins said. “It’s a resource for all of us: students, staff and parents … Our school resource officer is here before the school days starts and they are still here after the school day ends.”

Often, Higgins said, the officer advises the school on whether or not conduct of a student crosses the line between a school violation and a criminal act.

Higgins also said from time to time something comes up that requires him to notify parents of an incident at school. He said while this has happened fewer than 10 times in the time he has been in his job, he said he would have had to call police dispatch or 911 in each of these instances had an officer not been stationed on-site. He stressed how much faster the response time is with the program in place.

Smith said he wanted to include as much information in the presentation as he could. While the district hasn’t had any surveys about the program specifically, he did include the results of a recent survey that asked students and parents how safe students feel at school.

“This is a comprehensive survey the board has done every year for the past three years now,” Smith said.

In the latest round, completed last fall, 61% of students said the statement “I feel safe at this school” was either “almost always true” (25%) or “often true” (36%).

The survey also listed responses by race. White students reported feeling safe higher than the general average; 65% of them answered “almost always true” or “often true.” Black students, who make up about 6% of the student body, were next at 63%.

According to the survey, 58% of Hispanic and Latino students selected these two responses.

American Indian students were the least likely to report feeling safe as just 44% chose “almost always true” or “often true.”

Another question asked if students felt as respected at school as other students. Black students were the most likely to respond that they felt respected, according to the presentation.

American Indian students were the least likely to report feeling as respected as other students.

Wells said this morning that adding specific questions regarding the school resource officer in the next round of the survey is being considered.

While no action was taken at this time, it was suggested that the issue be discussed again, perhaps after results of the next round of surveys come back.

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.