Keeping children safe at school

Every day since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut I’ve been approached on the street and at the store, by email and by phone, by citizens who are concerned about the safety of our county’s children. They want to know what they can do to help keep our children safe and, more importantly, they want to know what the Sheriff’s Office is doing right now to protect our schools.

First, let me reassure you that long before Sandy Hook, we have had resources, training and plans in place to keep our schools safe.

The Sheriff’s Office is fortunate to employ four full-time school resource officers, serving schools in Stanwood, Everett, Lynnwood, and Sultan. These deputies are some of the best resources this county can provide to stem violence in our schools. Not because an officer is on site carrying a gun, but because each of our county school resource officers works closely with the schools to which they are assigned. They get to know the students, they know the families. They are there to stop a problem before it even occurs. The National Association of School Resource Officers reports that school violence diminishes when local police begin partnering with school officials. Once schools are made safe, the campuses tend to stay safe.

Unfortunately, due to budget restraints, we do not have enough school resource officers for every campus, but since 2006, we’ve offered “active shooter training” to any school in the county. Working in collaboration with the Marysville Police Department, we train teachers and administrative staff on what to do when the unthinkable occurs. School personnel are taught how to respond and what information to gather in those few precious moments between when violence occurs and first responders arrive. They learn about what they can expect from law enforcement when they first arrive during an active shooter situation.

In addition to training, whenever we are requested, we conduct “walk throughs” on school campuses. We offer suggestions about how schools should make their facilities safer. We ask schools to participate in the Rapid Responder program, where every school is mapped and those floor plans are made available to first responders. Those numbers you see in classroom windows facing the outside are one part of that program.

I also ask all of my uniformed personnel to “be seen and be known.” Sometimes, just having a patrol car in a school parking lot can deter a potentially violent situation. Sheriff’s Office deputies meet with staff and families from schools in the areas they patrol and in the neighborhoods where they live. I personally visit dozens of our county’s elementary schools each year.

That’s what we’re doing, but there is still more that can be done. I have been working with Snohomish County council members, schools and community leaders to start a new School Safety Unit. This will be a full-time unit with uniformed law enforcement personnel assigned to work with schools to promote and enhance safety. This is a multi-faceted challenge, so we are developing a multi-faceted response, including immediate measures to be put in place while we develop a long-range strategy.

What we will not be doing is asking our teachers or parents to become their school’s security guards. Teachers should continue the tremendously important work they do of educating our children, and know that they are doing so in a safe place. Parents should be able to focus on raising their kids, enjoying the time they spend together, and sending them off to school knowing they will spend the next few hours in a sanctuary of learning. Most importantly, our kids should never be scared to go to school.

As a law enforcement agency, your Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office has been charged by the citizens to keep Snohomish County a safe place to live, work and play. In the debate that rages following Sandy Hook about what will be done, I think we agree that common ground can be found in the fact that something must be done. After all, violence in our schools is not a school problem, it is a community problem.

In the words of President Obama, “While reducing gun violence is a challenge, protecting our children from harm shouldn’t be a divisive one… This is our first task as a society: keeping our children safe. This is how we will be judged.”

As Sheriff of Snohomish County, I am committed to keeping our schools safe. There is no greater responsibility than protecting our children, our future.

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