School cops helpful but costly and no panacea, local officials say
While the National Rifle Association proposes putting armed guards in schools, police agencies across the state have long assigned officers to school patrols.
Seattle Times staff reporters
In May 2002, expelled student David Lengenfelder armed himself with two butcher knives and walked into a classroom at Arlington's Lakewood High School.
The 17-year-old ordered the teacher and students to the floor. He then turned his attention to a 15-year-old girl, who he was obsessed with, and told her to stand in a corner.
When another girl came to her aid, Lengenfelder held the knives head-high, pointed toward the pair, as if ready to strike.
That was when Snohomish County sheriff's Deputy Mike Anderson, the school's resource officer, rushed into the room and pointed his handgun squarely at Lengenfelder. He ordered the teen to drop the knives, which he did. He was taken into custody, and no one was hurt.
This is likely the type of scenario envisioned by Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), who on Friday called for schools to be protected by armed guards as the best way to protect children from gun violence.
LaPierre's idea is hardly novel. Many schools in Washington state and elsewhere already have armed officers on campus.
"Their job is to interact with the students, be a resource to the school," said King County Sheriff John Urquhart. "While we can't prove it, there's no doubt officers in schools have prevented school shootings just because they get to know the kids. They (the officers) solve crimes and prevent crimes."
Biggest problem: money
But experts warn that cost is a major deterrent and, even if funded, the idea is not a panacea.
Some local school districts, like the Snohomish School District, have done away with the resource officers in recent years because of the expense. The Edmonds School District shares the cost of a resource officer at Lynnwood High School with the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office, but has eliminated officers at three other high schools.
King County has whittled its school-resource-officer program down to 12 deputies because of the price tag of having someone in the schools instead of on the streets.
"If I could, I would put an SRO (school-resource officer) in every single high school in King County and probably in the middle schools, too," Urquhart said. "It allows the students to develop relationships with police officers that they normally wouldn't have."
But, adds sheriff's spokeswoman Sgt. Cindi West, "we don't have the manpower or the money."
In 2007, the Department of Justice estimated the annual cost of employing a law-enforcement officer averaged $116,500.
In school districts across the state, school-resource officers still roam locker-filled high schools and cafeterias. In many places, including unincorporated King and Snohomish counties, Walla Walla, Ellensburg and Yakima, the school districts, or cities, pick up a portion of the school-resource officer's salary.
"To have a police officer at a school is a large financial obligation for the district and the police department," said Everett police spokesman Aaron Snell. "We believe there is an obligation, and we need to be in the schools. I don't think it's a foolproof plan because situations occur even when there is an officer there."
Seattle police Assistant Chief Jim Pugel offered similar sentiments, saying that "having a person in uniform standing around itself is not a deterrent. But if you have officers spending time tutoring kids, mentoring them, helping them, having a relationship with them, that can be very effective."
He said the Seattle Police Department funds one full-time school-resource officer at Garfield High School — which the department says costs roughly $110,000 a year. A handful of others work part time at several middle schools.
It's the extreme situations that leave Pierce County sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer wondering why the NRA would believe that an armed police officer at school is the answer to all problems.
"You want your schools to be jails? A metal detector won't stop anybody. Somebody is going to shoot someone at the metal detector. I don't know what the answer is; that ain't it," Troyer said.
Urquhart agrees that the NRA proposal is "not a practical solution."
"Violence in America is much bigger than just putting armed guards or even police officers in schools. I'm always leery of one-size-fits-all solutions," Urquhart said. "There is no one answer. There is no simple answer."
Where it didn't work
Some point to Colorado's Columbine High School, where in April 1999 students Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, killed 12 classmates and a teacher and wounded more than 20 others before killing themselves — despite the presence on campus of an armed sheriff's deputy.
"Even with the security system at Sandy Hook, even with protocols, someone with an assault weapon in their hands was able to force their way into that school and create this horrific situation. ... As a nation, we need to have a serious conversation around what the Second Amendment really means," Seattle School Board President Kay Smith-Blum said Friday.
Bill Williams, executive director of the Washington State PTA, noted the slayings of four armed police officers in a Lakewood coffee shop in 2009 in pointing out that being armed doesn't prevent violence. "The more people are armed, the more likely there are going to be gun deaths," he said.
Some elected leaders ridiculed the NRA's proposal.
"Brilliant. How dim the NRA must think us all, that we cannot see the problem to be schools or parents or games — anything other than the grotesquely irresponsible proliferation of guns," King County Executive Dow Constantine said.
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn also issued a statement, saying, "The NRA has just shown that they are completely out of ideas. It's time to stop listening to them and start working on real solutions."
McGinn, who favors a ban on assault-style weapons, has said easy access to guns and unmet mental-health needs should be top priorities, a sentiment echoed by Gov.-elect Jay Inslee:
"A proposal that requires hiring more (than) 2,000 additional police officers is unrealistic, and it treats the symptom, not the disease," Inslee said. "We need to be talking about how to treat mental illness, and how to keep dangerous weapons out of schools in the first place."
John Turner, the interim director of a private security firm, agrees.
He was chief of the Snohomish Police Department in 2011 when a disturbed 15-year-old Snohomish High School student stabbed and seriously injured two classmates. At that time, the school district had just cut funding for a resource officer.
Turner could not say whether having an officer on campus would have prevented the violence. But he also believes placing an armed officer in every school is "completely unrealistic."
"We need to look at the roots of the problem, not at the blossoms and the buds," he said. "If you look at what has happened in mental health over the last 30 to 40 years, you will see that they have cut back. There are no resources. They have cut back down on the state institutions and stopped funding the locals. Now they are about to cut prescriptions because of the costs. There are many, many people who need mental-health care, and they're just not getting it, and it's going to get worse."
Contains material from staff reporters Jack Broom and Andrew Garber, Associated Press and Times archives.
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