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

caption: A growing memorial for a 17-year-old student who was shot and killed is shown on Friday, June 7, 2024, at Garfield High School in Seattle.
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A growing memorial for a 17-year-old student who was shot and killed is shown on Friday, June 7, 2024, at Garfield High School in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

It won't be "one thing" that solves safety issues at Seattle Public Schools, according to interim Police Chief Sue Rahr. In the wake of a fatal shooting at Garfield High School last week, the school district and the city will have to consider a range of ideas, including placing police officers back inside the city's schools.

RELATED: 'It's not just a Garfield problem.' Students, families push for community safety measures following school shooting

"I hope that we can have a conversation with Seattle Public Schools, to think about, ‘Can we now look at partnering with the police and the schools?’” Rahr said while speaking with KUOW's Soundside.

Rahr added that the shooting at Garfield High School "should be a wake up call for adults. We need to get our act together, because we have not been successful" a keeping students safe.

“I understand that there are very raw feelings about the police, but we’re not going to solve those raw feelings by staying apart," she said. "We have to heal those wounds and we have to get together. … The adults in the room have a responsibility to these kids, and frankly, I think until we do everything we can to build that relationship, we’re gonna continue to fail our kids.”

RELATED: 17-year-old student dies after being shot multiple times at Seattle’s Garfield High School

Officers previously had been assigned to Seattle's schools. Starting in 2009, the Seattle Police Department and the district teamed up for the Seattle Youth Violence Initiative, which placed resource officers on campuses. In 2020, amid widespread protests against police violence, a group of students, parents, and staff urged the district to remove the officers. They argued the officers were not protecting students, and they would rather have counselors to address youth problems, not officers. The district ended its relationship with SPD that year.

A similar story unfolded in Bellevue around its Community Engagement Officer Program; however, officers weren't gone from schools for long. Bellevue brought back its school resource officers in 2022. This came after the results of an advisory group tasked with reframing how such cops operate on campus.

In 2024, other voices have emerged in Seattle, some asking for police to be placed back in the city's schools. This comes after three shootings shocked Garfield High School in June 2023, and more violence in October. Following a shooting at a nearby bus stop that injured a 17-year-old girl in March 2024, some Garfield parents organized a demonstration to send a message to the district. At the time, parents told KUOW that they would like to see officers back on campus. They noted that police will usually increase their presence around the school after an incident, but pull back after a few days.

Last week, hours after the shooting that killed 17-year-old student Amarr Murphy at Garfield High School, KUOW spoke with parents who recalled the times their kids were forced into lockdown on campus, following a shooting nearby.

When the shooting happened at Garfield, Rahr had been in her role as interim chief for about a week. She's not only tasked with finding a permanent chief but also with putting the struggling police department on the right track. School safety is increasingly part of that effort.

RELATED: 'I can't breathe': A 2nd-grader. A security guard. A Seattle school.

The issues aren't entirely unfamiliar to Rahr. She ended her 33-year career with the King County Sheriff's Office as a twice-elected sheriff. In 2014, when she was executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, she was on President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

"Officers in schools was a big issue," Rahr recalled of the task force. "There were two camps. One camp that said that if you had cops in schools, they will ignite the schools-to-prison pipeline. And when we had that conversation, I was pretty angry because that is not how we were doing the school resource officer program in the King County Sheriff’s Office. We did not put officers in schools to be quasi security guards. They weren't disciplinarians. They were placed in the school to develop relationships with kids, to develop trust, so they could prevent this kind of thing from happening."

Rahr argues that school resource officer programs across the United States have often been misused, using cops as school security or to "ratchet up their statistics, making more arrests." Locally, she can recall experiences as King County sheriff, telling principals, "Don’t use these school resources officers as school security. That is not their job."

"Unfortunately, I think there is a lot of national narrative that drives peoples’ opinions about cops in schools," she said. "If we were able to restart the conversation ... the idea of having police officers in schools, you have to have very clear policies and practices about how they are used."

KUOW's Dyer Oxley contributed to this article.

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