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Spokane Police Chief, School District at odds over reports of violence in schools

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Spokane Public Schools and the city’s Police Department are at odds over the district’s responsibility to report violence. The police chief says the district is failing in its duty. District leaders say they take the issue seriously, and aren’t aware of a pattern of complaints from either families, or staff.

In a letter sent to district leaders last week, Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said school staff are not following Washington’s mandatory reporting law, which requires staff to report signs of physical or sexual abuse of children to law enforcement.

Meidl did not cite any specific incidents in the letter, but in an interview Tuesday, he said he had reviewed a few dozen police reports filed by parents since the start of the school year, and spoke to an unnamed school staff member. They alleged bullying, assault and sexual assault incidents between students are occurring at Spokane middle and high schools.

“If the number one priority is the safety of the students, and you have information that a student, or a group of students is consistently threatening, or creating an unsafe environment, we need to do something with them,” he said. “You need to acknowledge at some point that if what we're doing isn't working, we can't keep doing it. We have to transition to something different. And we need also for the school district to acknowledge that law enforcement does have a role to play. If it's the last resort, that's ok, but let's make sure we're following the law.”

Meidl said all reports he had reviewed related were incidents between students, or between students and staff. He said there were no reports of Spokane Public School staff ignoring potential abuse between a parent or guardian and a child.

In a response letter, Spokane public school leaders said they had not seen a pattern of complaints from either teachers, or parents or union leaders. They also said all staff complete an annual training session that spells out their responsibilities.

The school district also took issue with how the allegations been communicated, saying the memo was the first they had heard about the chief’s concerns. They said they received a media request about the report within hours of receiving it.

“The district leadership team is not aware of any patterns of complaints from families or building staff regarding a failure to comply with mandatory reporting responsibilities,” district leaders wrote. “We take any report of employee misconduct seriously and are committed to following up appropriately. We would like to discuss why your impressions are so different from ours.”

That letter was signed by School Board President Mike Wiser, board member Nikki Lockwood, superintendent Adam Swinyard and union representatives. They asked for a meeting with Meidl, Mayor Nadine Woodward, Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs and the district’s civil rights officer, Jerrall Haynes. Haynes is also the former school board president.

A spokesperson for the district said they would not be commenting at this time beyond their public letters.

Meidl, who worked as a school resource officer on Spokane Public School’s campus in the early 2000s, says currently there are no law enforcement officers regularly interacting with students at the district. Unlike other districts in the county, which have law enforcement school resource officers on campus, Spokane Public Schools has public safety employees who work directly for the district.

Kendrick Washington II, the director of policy at ACLU Washington, says he is concerned by the lack of specificity in Meidl’s letter.

He says mandatory reporting laws are designed to protect children from abuse by adults in their lives, and are not a tool for law enforcement to get involved in fights or arguments between students at school.

“Nothing positive has been shown to come from the overcriminalization from children in public schools and the increase and police, and [School Resource Officers]'s on school campuses throughout the United States,” Washington said. “The only thing that's happened by their increased presence is the increased arrest and criminalization of children for childlike behaviors."

Meidl says he is working toward a joint meeting with school district and city leaders, where he says he will discuss interpretations of the state’s mandatory reporting law.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.