Open letter from Superintendent Santorno and Tacoma Chief of Police Ramsdell on School Safety

3/6/2018 | TACOMA, Washington

Dear Community Members:

We believe our schools should be—and are—safe places for our children.  However, we also know the current national spotlight on school violence, polarizing gun control debates, and recent highly visible social media threats locally warrant our attention—and yours.

We want to be clear: school safety and security issues are not new to us. The Tacoma Police Department (TPD) and Tacoma Public Schools have an extensive history of collaboration that began in earnest in the aftermath of our own high school shooting death in 2007.

Through a cooperative agreement, local voter-approved levy funds pay for five full-time Tacoma Police Officers—one is assigned at each comprehensive high school—A Police Sergeant oversees the officers work within each assigned school and collaborates with school leadership and staff on a daily basis.  The goal for this investment is for the police officers to develop trusting relationships with the staff and students, so they are aware of potential issues before they become real issues.  By all accounts, the work of these School Resource Officers has earned praise in the schools and within the communities they serve.

When issues do occur in our schools, lockdowns are still our primary practiced safety response.  As many parents probably hear from their children, lockdowns mean locking all external and interior doors, turning out lights and securing students quietly on the floor in safe areas within classrooms.  As a school district, we have practiced lockdown drills and had real lockdowns, for years.

In a new effort, by the end of this school year, TPD will have participated as an observer and reviewer of lockdown drills in every school.  After each drill, TPD experts discuss with the school's leadership team and with the school district's Safety & Security Department how the school staff and students performed, to include what went well and what could be improved.

It is the Tacoma Police Department's stance that if probable cause exists to make an arrest of an individual making a threat of violence against a school or individual students, an arrest will be made and the suspect will be booked into the appropriate correctional facility. Our students and others in our community need to know that simply making a threat against a school is a serious crime—whether they carry it out or not, whether they meant it or not. We take these threats very seriously.

Likewise, it is also a crime to make a knowingly false report claiming someone threatened a school when they did not. We are seeing cases like this too.  These cases typically involve one student or family who wants to get another student or family in trouble.  Because both of our organizations treat threats seriously, false reports waste extensive time and resources of the police department and the school district.

That said, we want you to know the No. 1 way you can help prevent school violence.

And it's very simple.

"See Something. Say Something."


The No. 1 way to prevent school violence is to report it. Call 911 first, then notify your school.

Our organizations are collaborating on a new #SeeSomething #SaySomething campaign so that everyone in our community can serve as the eyes and ears of safety—and call 911 so police officers can respond more immediately.

So, what about the design of schools? Tacoma has older schools originally built in the early 1900s, schools that opened within the last year and schools built in many decades in between. Each school was designed for the era in which it was built.  As you would expect, the newest schools have design features intended to provide an additional sense of safety. These features may include controlled visitor access through a vestibule entrance through the main office or a video camera connection between the office and the school's front door that requires an office worker to buzz in each visitor.

For a number of years, Tacoma Public Schools has installed multiple passive security camera systems in high schools and middle schools. These camera systems, while not monitored, allow school and law enforcement officials to investigate incidents effectively after they occur.  For example, in the recent case of a single gunshot fired in the men's restroom at Oakland High School, law enforcement investigators reviewed the school's security camera system to identify the students involved.

These features, while they may help a school community feel safer, would not prevent an active shooter event.  We wish they would. Unfortunately, experience confirms they won't.

With all that said, we firmly believe in the value of "feeling safe" in school.  Fact: students who feel safe at school do better academically.

TPD will conduct physical inspections of our schools and make safety recommendations. The School District has hired a contractor to review schools for age and deterioration.

We are committed to combining the safety information from the Tacoma Police Department's review with the independent condition assessment to come up with physical improvements we can recommend to voters as part of a construction bond package.

We expect to have those assessments completed and the proposed package ready for community feedback as early as this fall. Then we can look at putting a final package on the ballot for voters to consider in 2019.

Tacoma Public Schools and the Tacoma Police Department think about school safety every day. The Tacoma School Board made safety one of its four strategic priorities in 2012.

If you know of a threat, call 911.

If you have additional thoughts on what you would like to see happen with school safety, please send your thoughts to us at a special email address: safety@tacoma.k12.wa.us.

 

Don Ramsdell, Chief of Police, Tacoma Police Department         Carla J. Santorno, Superintendent, Tacoma Public Schools