Chief Meidl, SPS, and Restorative Practice
"School resource officers" vs. "campus safety specialists"
City of Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl recently, in a letter to the Superintendent of Spokane Public Schools (SPS) that was soon made public, accused SPS of violating state law. Chief Meidl accused the District of not reporting “assaults and threats” to the Police, reporting that he claims is required by the law as detailed in the Revised Code of Washington (RCW). The media details and the background are well covered in Luke Baumgarten’s article, Custody of the Kids. Spokane Public Schools quickly contested the allegations, but Meidl went to the media and then, abruptly, the FBI was called in to investigate. Now neither Meidl or SPS will comment until completion of the FBI investigation.
When a public figure like a police chief makes such an accusation in a letter and in the media it leaves an impression, warranted or unwarranted, on those exposed to the reporting. “Gee, there must be something bad going on in the public schools.” It is hard not to suspect a political motivation on the part of Chief Meidl—or at least some sort of payback—to explain his public action.
Spokane Public Radio, using a public records request, obtained and reviewed the thirty reports Chief Meidl reviewed before issuing the letter with his legal interpretation of state law. You can listen to or read the resulting story by Rebecca White here on SPR’s website. It’s entitled “Spokane police chief says Spokane Public Schools is not reporting violence; police reports show more complicated picture”.
For reference, keep in mind that Spokane Public Schools serves nearly 30,000 students, so this Meidl-media-event is based on 30 reports involving a tiny fraction of students. Meidl’s allegation of a violation of a legal requirement to report all of these incidents is, to be generous, subject to legal argument:
Kim Ambrose, a law professor who specializes in juvenile law at the University of Washington, says some of the police reports Meidl reviewed, such as students threatening to kill their teachers, don’t fall under mandatory reporting.
In instances where parents called the police, Ambrose says it’s difficult to make a judgment because of the vagueness of state law and the limited information captured in a police report, but the common understanding of mandatory reporting is as a tool to address adults abusing children.
It used to be that “school resource officers” in the Spokane Public Schools had the power to arrest, embroiling a student in the criminal justice system.
Spokane Public Schools is one of many districts across the country that reviewed and revised its policies in response to racial justice protests and complaints from parents of children with disabilities.
The district’s current approach bars school staff from arresting students, and focuses on restorative practice. It has garnered praise from some, and criticism from others – including Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl. He alleges the district leadership may be telling staff to not call the police when they are legally required too.
School resource officers have been replaced with campus safety specialists, who cannot arrest students.
The policy does not tell teachers to not call law enforcement, but it does discourage staff from criminalizing students. It calls law enforcement a “last resort” for serious threats to campus safety.
An example of the difference in approach under the new guidelines is illustrative:
Erin Carden is a member of the local Every Student Counts Alliance group and the mother of an autistic student. She says the newer approach has changed the district for the better.
Carden says her son’s first of many encounters with school resource officers came in second grade. He was handcuffed after he laid down on the ground during story time and wouldn’t follow orders. In his teens, interactions with resource officers became more violent. Carden says once when she went to school to pick her son up for non-compliant behavior, she arrived to find a resource officer restraining him face down on the ground, and he was repeatedly hitting his head on the linoleum floor.
She says the experience was traumatic for them both, and she contacted school leadership and eventually worked with several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union.
“This isn’t what our kids deserve, and for me those were two really defining moments,” she said.
She says in the last two to three years, the district changed its approach when working with her son. They’ve given him more personal space and time, stopped putting him in isolation rooms, and removed school resource officers.
“He's a different person,” she said. “I feel like we waited almost 19 years to really get to see glimpses of this, glimpses of his potential because he was so constantly kept under this magnifying glass, or pressure to be something that he was not. If he didn't fit into that little box that they wanted him to be, the punishment was go to jail.”
Could Chief Meidl have asked to sit down with representatives of Spokane Public Schools and discuss his concerns over the reports he had read? Of course he could have, but no one is suggesting that he did. Instead, he chose to air his allegation to the media in a manner to suggest an adversarial relationship between the police department and the public schools. And the Federal Bureau of Investigation?? One has to wonder if the FBI was called in to further dramatize the supposed gravity of the accusation and foster public distrust. Is Meidl chaffing over the loss of “school resource officers” and, thereby, the police department’s direct route to criminalizing student behavior? Meidl’s media enlistment rather than cooperative effort doesn’t pass a basic smell test.
Keep to the high ground,