Kent School Board votes 3-2 to approve police in schools program

Two board members wanted more public input prior to vote


Kent Police officers are back in two high schools and two middle schools in the city after a controversial 3-2 vote by the Kent School Board.

The board approved a contract Aug. 25 with the city of Kent to provide two officers to split time among Kent-Meridian and Kentridge high schools as well as Mill Creek and Meridian middle schools. The Kent City Council unanimously approved the school resource officer program on Aug. 17.

Board President Denise Daniels said she saw positive interactions between officers and students when she volunteered at her child’s high school.

“I feel working with and talking to them the last five years that they are a valued member of that team,” Daniels said at the board meeting. “I believe they are a positive influence for the most part and it would be detrimental to take away the program.”

Daniels, Maya Vengadasalam and Leslie Hamada voted to approve the contract. Michele Bettinger and Joe Bento voted against it. The officers were in the schools for opening day on Aug. 26. The city and district have had the program for many years.

This contract only applied to the two high schools and middle schools that are in the city limits. The board must approve separate contracts with the King County Sheriff’s Office and city of Covington for Kentwood and Kentlake.

Bettinger said she wanted input from the public as promised on the district website prior to voting on a school resource officer contract.

“We have not had community discussion about it,” Bettinger said. “I have asked for discussion for a long, long time. I am not comfortable voting until we have that discussion and the opportunity to speak.”

Nica Sy, one of the leaders of the group ForFortyTwo, named for the number of Kent schools and formed in 2020 to combat systemic racism, spoke at the board meeting against officers in schools.

“The student resource officer program suggests this contract with the police is meant to protect students,” said Sy, a 2017 Kent-Meridian graduate. “My experience and experiences of so many Black and brown students in this district has shown, police in schools do not keep students safe.

“Cops in schools do not keep students out of the criminal justice system which is what the contract suggests, but instead the presence of cops in schools brings the criminal justice into the schools. …police in schools means they are policing our students because that is their job.”

Sy said the board should invest district funds in counselors and tutoring.

“Invest in students, not police,” said Sy, who helped lead a protest in August 2020 at Kent City Hall that included demands to remove officers from schools.

The district will pay $243,080 to the city of Kent for the two officers and a commander (who serves as a liaison). The total cost is $313,157 for the 2021-2022 school year, according to city documents. The city covers the rest of the cost.

Bento said he prefers to see the district spend that money on mental health counselors rather than officers.

“We need more counselors,” Bento said. “The funds could be used in other places.”

Bento said the board also needs to hear from the youth in the community to see what they think of officers in schools before voting on the contract.

Vengadasalam said new laws about school resource officers adopted by the Legislature limits their duties and prohibits them from becoming involved in formal school discipline measures issued by administrators.

“It clarifies that teachers and administrators may ask officers to intervene, but only in an emergency situation,” Vengadasalam said.

Hamada said the program provides for good interactions between officers and students to build a trusting relationship.

“There are new parameters for training and de-escalating,” Hamada said about the state laws for school resource officers.

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