July 17, 2020: An earlier version of this update did not indicate that law enforcement personnel were among the community members with whom Dr. Baker and other district staff talked with regarding this important issue. We have edited the first sentence to clarify this.
An update from Superintendent Greg Baker
Over the last six weeks, others in our district and I have engaged with numerous staff, students, families, community members and law enforcement professionals to listen to a variety of perspectives regarding police in schools. I have spent time studying the issue and its many complexities, from the history of policing in this country to the Black Lives Matter movement to ideas being shared for reforming law enforcement systems. This is an update of some of what I have learned and thoughts as we move forward.
History and context
It is important to understand the history of policing in our country. Like many institutions, including education, racism is embedded within organizations and systems. Some members of our staff recently shared with me and others some powerful research, including historical context of policing, and consistent with this research. I wanted to share a video from Sunday Morning on CBS.
The video describes the history of policing from slave patrols in the 1700s to the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s up through the current challenges we face in our country. There is no doubt that knowing more about the history of policing in this country adds important context and a powerful voice to those who advocate that we do not have police in our schools. It is a painful history, and as we witness in the news and stories being shared around our country, pain, suffering and injustice have continued to present day. In the clip, a former police chief talks about the importance of acknowledging this history and context. I spoke to one family who moved here from the southern United States. The pain and fear of police for them is powerful and palpable. Their experience and their extended family members’ experiences have taught them to fear the police. We have students in our district who acknowledge this fear as well, whether from personal experiences here or elsewhere.
I believe understanding the history of policing in our country is critical. It helps explain why so many are upset and demanding we eliminate police in schools. This is part of a broader context of defunding police. At first glance, the call to defund police seems to be a call to fully get rid of police, and for some that is what they want. However, what I have found is that most do not want to eliminate the police; instead, they want to alter, reform, reduce and recalibrate roles and responsibilities. They are calling to decrease the use of officers where possible and increase the use of other professionals. Said another way, we should not use officers or first responders as social workers when it comes to meeting all the needs of those in crisis. Instead, use social workers, counselors, drug and alcohol prevention counselors, homeless liaisons and others. This idea resonates strongly with me and in many ways is what we have already begun building in our district.
Support staff: We have invested heavily in counselors, and we now have over 30 on staff. We also have drug and alcohol prevention and intervention specialists. We have homeless coordinators, family resource specialists and campus monitors as well as deans and assistant principals. I know we can do better, and I have now approved the hiring of our first mental health coordinator; additionally, we are looking to hire a mental health specialist. We also will be posting soon for a director of equity, diversity and inclusion. All of these positions add capacity to support students in crisis and deemphasize the use of officers.
Lunch program: Our first responder lunch program is now on hiatus. This program served not only police, but also firefighters and EMTs. This may help limit the worry and anxiety that some students have reported.
Resource Officer: After deep thought into the complexity of the issue and considering what is best for our community as a whole, we will continue to have the position of district resource officer (DRO). We commit to refining and examining the unique role of the DRO with the voice of our community in mind. As I shared last month, our district has one district resource officer (DRO) to serve 23 school educational sites. Some thought we had one officer per school; years ago, we had one per middle and high school, but that is no longer the case. You can learn more about the DRO position on our webpage. We will also be improving the ways we collect and use data to help refine the role and responsibility of the DRO. While the duties of a DRO are part of state law, there are things we can do as a district to better define when and how our schools and staff call on them.
Training and restorative practices: We also believe we can provide more training to our leaders and staff so they can better access resources beyond our DRO, including counselors, mental health supports and community resources beyond our district. This is consistent with our work in the last ten years to increase our network of support staff, mentioned above. We will continue to utilize restorative practices and work closely with our school safety and emergency management director, whose background and philosophy are grounded in prevention and student support.
There is work we need to do as a system to rely less on our DRO, but I do believe police provide vital support to our staff and students. Often our DRO is helping a student who has been a victim of a crime, whether at school or in the community, and serves as a strong advocate and facilitator to other resources. Other times they provide guidance in missing person cases or, in rare circumstances, if a student has been accused of a federal crime.
Some have shared a perspective that the police are also parents and neighbors and part of our community. For some, a police officer provides a sense of security, especially when thinking of the violent acts that have occurred in some schools across the country. Many have emphasized that we have some wonderful officers in Bellingham, including our recent DROs. It is not a single person where the concern lies; rather, it is the broader position of an armed officer in schools.
Thank you for joining me and many others in our community on our journey to listen,