Arrests in Spokane Public Schools down 88 percent from last year

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As Spokane Public Schools has turned to restorative justice practices, students are being arrested at a significantly lower rate than past years.

A total of 50 students have been arrested by school officers during the 2016-17 school year through February 8, says Mark Sterk, director of safety, risk management and transportation for Spokane Public Schools. By contrast, 402 students were arrested during the 2015-16 school year by the same date.

That's an 88 percent reduction in arrests.

"I think we were arresting some kids when we didn't need to in the past," Sterk says.

Sterk, former Spokane County sheriff, says in his first year with Spokane Public Schools, 2014-15, he noticed that the number of arrests for the year was somewhere around 800.

"So that's what caused me to start to look at this and talk with school directors about, 'Man, what are we doing?'" Sterk says. "Why are we arresting so many kids?"

It started a discussion with school directors and administrators about what kids should and shouldn't be arrested for. The district determined some of the offenses could be handled through internal discipline within the district, rather than the criminal justice system. And as the district pushed for more restorative justice practices — less punitive ways to address student behavior — that created more alternatives for officers as opposed to simply arresting students, Sterk says.

For example, school resource officers are handling kids in possession of marijuana differently than before. If officers find a small amount of marijuana on a student, that student would likely have been arrested in previous years. But now, Sterk says, those students are educated about the effects of marijuana and drugs and are referred to the school discipline process.

Another common arrest was for "disrupting school," Sterk says. But prosecutors reported that they rarely filed charges on those arrests, so there was little use in sending kids through the juvenile justice system.

It's been a combination of things that have caused the numbers to go down, he says, including new guidelines, training and personnel. The district came up with a set of new guidelines about when officers can and can't arrest students, and officers were trained on those practices in August before the new school year.

Of the 50 arrests this year, eight were felony referrals. Broken down by race, 24 of the students arrested were white, five were black, five Hawaiian, three Hispanic, and 13 were multi-racial.

Sterk presented these numbers to the Spokane Public Schools' board of directors during a meeting Wednesday, Feb. 8. Shelley Redinger, Spokane Public Schools superintendent, praised Sterk for the work.

"Mark has done a really good job. We have a very different group of individuals working for us now. In his department, they have a different mindset about their role, and that in itself has made a huge shift," Redinger says.

Bob Douthitt, who recently resigned from the board but will continue in his role until Feb. 23, called the numbers "remarkable." But at the same time, he questioned if the drop in arrests means student behavior is actually getting better or if it could make it worse.

"I worry this is coming at a cost of allowing too much disruption," Douthitt said.

Sterk assured that none of this is costing schools safety.

"I can say that the kids that are being arrested are kids that are on the more violent side of the spectrum, and those kids that are committing felonies, felony assaults, those kids are still being arrested and still being removed from the school until we can bring the resources to them outside of the school environment," Sterk says.

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