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Spokane police chief says Spokane Public Schools not reporting violence; police reports show more complicated picture

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.

In a letter he authored last month, he accused district staff of ignoring their legal responsibility to report child abuse to the police. Shortly after his letter was released, school staff members received an email notifying them that the FBI was making an inquiry into the district.

In an interview last month, Meidl said his allegations were informed in part by a conversation with an unnamed school staff member and several dozen police reports.

“[If] you have information that a student, or a group of students is threatening or creating an unsafe environment, we need to do something with them and we need to acknowledge that at some point, if what we're doing isn't working,” Meidl said. “We also need the school district to acknowledge that law enforcement does have a role to play, and again, if it’s the last resort, that's ok, but let’s make sure we're following the law.”

Meidl is referring to mandatory reporting. That requires public school and healthcare professionals to report patterns of abuse and neglect to the state and to law enforcement.

Spokane Public Radio public records requested, and obtained the 30 reports the chief reviewed before writing his letter. More than half of the reports were categorized as some form of assault. Those included fights between students, students threatening each other – in one instance with a gun – and two cases of students threatening to kill their teachers.

A few assault or threat-related reports involved students with suspected gang ties, such as a group of students to trying to break into a middle school they did not attend to allegedly try to kill another student with past ties to another gang. The incident was reported to law enforcement by a school administrator.

Some of those cases were reported to law enforcement by school leaders or campus safety specialists. Many were reported by parents and some reports it was not clear who informed law enforcement a crime may have taken place.

A few showed conflicts between students that led to injury, such as a boy being punched by another student while they were leaving school – leading him to fall and hit his head on the school steps. He was hospitalized and required surgery for his injury.

One-sixth of the reports were for alleged sexual assault or misconduct, including several high school girls accusing a boy of sexual assault. In this case, a school administrator reported the incident to police, but a parent interviewed by law enforcement said the district should have addressed the problem sooner.

Another sexual assault case reviewed by Meidl was between a 14-year-old and an 18-year old with alleged gang ties. An administrator heard from students that coercive sexual activity took place at the 18-year old’s home, and contacted the police.

Other incidents Meidl reviewed included a rash of school shooting threats, most of which were found to be not credible, and a case of an intoxicated high school student behaving erratically near campus with an unloaded firearm in their backpack.

Washington courts have not yet weighed in on whether mandatory reporting laws were intended to include the harm children do to each other. The law originally defined an abuser as an adult who is responsible for a child’s welfare. In the 1980s the definition was changed to “any person.”

Around that time, then-Attorney General Ken Eikenberry argued child abusers could be other children.But he also acknowledged the law is vague, and the opinion he wrote is non-binding.

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.

She says if the Spokane Police Department decided school staff were breaking the law by not reporting, it would be unusual, and likely difficult, to convict them.

“I haven't heard of a case with anybody being charged with failing to report,” Ambrose said, “A lot of the statute gets worked out, in respect to schools in particular rather in the civil side. Private individuals suing schools around the abuse of their children. That's where it can come up if folks didn't report in particular as indicative of the school’s negligence.”

She says Spokane Public Schools is also not unique in its effort to limit law enforcement’s presence on campus.

“What we know is that when children get pulled into the juvenile legal system, they are more likely to stay in the juvenile legal system and graduate to the adult system,” Ambrose said. “Schools are recognizing that and they have been doing more to work on positive behavioral interventions in the school as opposed to using law enforcement, who generally are not trained in adolescent behavioral and are not a place to go certainly as a first resort to resolve behavioral issues.”

In a meeting following Meidl’s letter, school district leaders said they expected this school year to be challenging.

Spokane School Board Member Nikki Lockwood told meeting goers the district was expecting more students with trauma.

“I know we've had a lot of bigger behaviors than usual,” she said. “I have a personal friend that's a counselor, not in our school district, and she shared she's just heard things from her clients that she's just never heard before. Just a lot of really tough things are happening in the wake of the pandemic. Our whole community is dealing with this and we really need the whole community to help address it."

The district’s updated policy focuses on evidence-based practices to discipline, and expanding mental health, as well as other types of support. It’s designed to reduce both racial, and disability disparities. It also prioritizes non-punitive restorative practices. 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.

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.”

According to records from the Washington state school superintendent’s office, nearly 17 % of black students and more than 15% of Native American students were seriously disciplined by Spokane Public Schools, compared to about 8% of white students. At that time, more than 17% of disabled students were seriously disciplined, compared to 8 % of all non-disabled students.

Numbers from the 2019-2020 school year show there are still disparities in school discipline, but rates are lower than they were seven years ago.

Kendrick Washington, the youth policy director at the ACLU, argues the district broke the law before it updated its policy discriminating against students of color and students with disabilities. Washington says the ACLU was one of the groups that worked alongside the Every Student Counts Alliance to address the disproportionalities, including reviewing safety policies before they were adopted.

“While the change may have some errors in its implementation here and there – because what doesn't have errors in its implementation – it doesn't really take away from the fact that this change is overwhelmingly positive. It’s overwhelmingly benefiting students and it’s overwhelmingly benefitting the community."

Both Meidl and the school district say they won’t give interviews on this issue until the FBI has finished its inquiry.

The FBI said in a statement last month that it does not confirm or deny the existence of investigations, but it is working in conjunction with the Spokane Police Department to look for information related to Meidl’s allegations.

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.