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No off-campus lunch, more police: Seattle Schools considers safety changes amid gun violence concerns

caption: Seattle police officers gather in the parking lot of Garfield High School following a shooting on Thursday, June 6, 2024, in Seattle.
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Seattle police officers gather in the parking lot of Garfield High School following a shooting on Thursday, June 6, 2024, in Seattle.
Megan Farmer / KUOW

Seattle school leaders are planning safety and security improvements for next school year, in the wake of a Garfield High School shooting that left one student dead and the community reeling.

District officials are considering measures like increasing police and security presence, and closing high school campuses during lunchtime.

Marni Campbell, the district’s director of operations, said the district’s top priority is for students to feel safe — both inside and outside of school.

“That sense of safety, fundamentally, is critical to their development,” she said. “If they’re feeling unsafe, they’re feeling a state of alarm, or a heightened state of anxiety, they’re not thriving.”

Campbell said the district is also going to pursue new community partnerships, beyond existing collaborations with the city and police department, to combat youth gun violence.

“We all need to work together,” she said. “We’re not just responsible for the portion of a student’s brain that lives in that six-hour school day.”

RELATED: Dozens gather for unity walk honoring Garfield High School shooting victim

The new initiative, what Campbell is calling “Safe and Welcoming Schools 2.0,” comes as another school year marred by community gun violence draws to a close.

Last fall, as the one-year anniversary of the deadly Ingraham High School shooting approached, a string of muggings in Ballard and North Seattle targeted students on their way home from school. Some of the student victims reported being held at gunpoint or beat up while suspects demanded their cellphones and AirPods.

In January, Mobarak Adam, a 15-year-old Chief Sealth International High School student, became Seattle’s first homicide victim of 2024. He was shot and killed in the bathroom of the Southwest Teen Life Center, less than 500 feet from his West Seattle school.

On June 6, 17-year-old Garfield student Amarr Murphy-Paine died after being shot multiple times in the chest and abdomen. He was trying to break up a fight in a school parking lot during lunch. As of Friday, no arrests have been made in connection with the case.

Garfield families had been expressing concerns with safety and security at the school for over a year, but their calls had grown louder in recent months after a Garfield student was shot in the leg while waiting for a bus home from school in March.

RELATED: Mapped: Shootings around Seattle's Garfield High School this year

All of it has forced the district to rethink how it approaches school safety, said Fred Podesta, the district’s chief operations officer.

“We used to be kind of postured towards keeping campuses safe from adult strangers,” Podesta said. “That was really kind of the primary threat.”

But this year, “We’ve had more community issues kind of surrounding our campuses,” Podesta said.

He added that the district has been working hard to better secure school buildings. After the Ingraham High School shooting, the district’s first “Safe and Welcoming Schools” initiative included:

  • Upgrading locks across the district so they can be activated inside classroom;
  • Improved security camera systems;
  • New safety signage;
  • Expanded counseling services and staff training programs;
  • And the creation of new school campus safety teams.

That work is mostly complete. Now the district must consider a different, community-wide approach that goes beyond school buildings, but is also within the purview of a school district, Podesta said.

Reconsidering off-campus lunch and campus police

The district's policy surrounding is off-campus lunch is one example. Both Adam and Murphy-Paine were shot and killed during lunch, when the district allows high school students to leave campus.

After Murphy-Paine’s death, district officials closed campus during lunch for the remainder of the school year. Now they’re considering whether this should be a permanent change — at Garfield and other schools dealing with heightened safety threats.

Podesta said the district plans to consult students and families for feedback before making a final decision about various changes.

“It’s a kind of compromise and a trade-off in what the atmosphere of the school is like,” Podesta said. “So which of these strategies make things better and which might be crossing a line?”

The district is also considering adding security personnel and reevaluating the current moratorium on school resource officers and the Seattle Police Department’s School Emphasis Officer program.

In 2020, Seattle became one of several school districts across the country to indefinitely halt the program that stationed armed police officers at school buildings in the wake of several high-profile police killings.

Bringing back school resource officers (SROs) — or in Seattle’s case, they’re also called school emphasis officers (SEOs) — is a deeply controversial prospect.

Some families and community leaders have called for the return of officers to school buildings following recent spurts of violence.

Seattle’s Interim Police Chief Sue Rahr recently told KUOW's Soundside that Seattle schools should consider reviving the program. And in the Garfield High School Parent-Teacher-Student Association’s “Safe Schools Action Plan” proposed days after Murphy-Paine’s killing, reinstating school resource officers is at the top of the group’s list of long-term solutions, along with adding additional security guards.

RELATED: Should cops return to Seattle high schools? Interim Chief Rahr signals she wants to talk about it

In a letter to families this week, Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Brent Jones said, “SPS staff and city officials are entering into active discussions about how SEOs and SROs could potentially fit into an ongoing program of safety improvements.” He also noted that the district and the police department will engage students and the community before final decisions are made.

But others are concerned by that idea.

In a statement earlier this month, the Seattle Student Union denounced “any call to reintroduce police to our schools after Black students and allies worked tirelessly in 2020 to demand their removal.” Instead, the student advocacy group urged the district and city to expand youth mental health support and crack down on guns.

Podesta said the district continues to have a “very strong” relationship with the police department and continues to work with them in ways besides the school emphasis officer program.

He said some board members have said they’re open to a proposal to bring back the program, if district staff think it’s the right move. Podesta said the district will consider that over the summer, while being sensitive to the “spectrum of opinion” about police on school campuses.

“We’ve certainly heard expressions from some students that they’re not sure a sworn officer with a firearm makes them feel safer,” he said. “So we want to take that into account.”

School board President Liza Rankin said the board hasn’t discussed taking action on the moratorium, but she has doubts that it’s the right solution.

“Personally, I would need a whole lot of convincing to bring back that program,” she said.

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