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Bellingham School District hires new resource officer despite protest from community

Activists continue work to remove police from schools

This graph depicts the racial disparity of policing in schools in Washington –– activists point out the disparate effects police have on students based on their race. Graph by Henry Stewart-Wood, data from U.S. Department of Education, 2015-2016 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) and the ACLU

By Henry Stewart-Wood

The Bellingham Police Department has appointed a new district resource officer to work in Bellingham Public Schools despite community demands to remove police from schools.

Claudia Murphy, Bellingham Police Department's public information officer, said the district resource officer was selected by the department before the 2020-2021 school year began.

Murphy said the district resource officer acts as a law enforcement liaison for Bellingham's 23 public schools. The roles of the officer include everything from dealing with crimes committed by students, to teaching students about drugs and alcohol, to child abuse investigations, according to the district website.

Bellingham Public Schools Superintendent Greg Baker published a press release on Jul. 16 in which he acknowledged some students may fear the police, as well as the history of racism in schooling and policing. Baker then said the district will continue to have a district resource officer because they provide important support to staff and students in the case of a crime committed on campus.

The district has not publicly stated who the resource officer is. However, a group of educators who are working to remove police from schools, the Bellingham Educators for Liberatory Actions, identified the resource officer as Jeremiah Leland via an Instagram post on Oct. 27.

The Bellingham Police Department and Bellingham Public Schools confirmed with The Western Front that Leland is the current district resource officer.

BELA’s mission is to remove police from schools and eliminate systems of white supremacy in education to create a more inclusive learning environment for all students.

BELA remains anonymous to protect its members from possible retaliation or termination by the school district or the Bellingham Education Association, who advised members not to speak on the subject of resource officers.

Members of BELA pointed out in their Instagram post that Leland shot and killed Manuel Gonzalez –– a man the Bellingham Police Department suspected of stabbing someone in the throat –– in 2017. The shooting was investigated by an independent agency, and Leland was cleared of any wrongdoing by the prosecuting attorney’s office, Murphy said.

This incident did not play into the decision to select Leland as the district resource officer, Murphy said. Murphy said Leland did exactly what officers are trained to do in order to protect the community from potential threats.

Leland was chosen for the role as district resource officer by the Bellingham Police Department because he is a qualified candidate and has an exemplary record as a police officer, Murphy said.

“He was the best person for that job,” Murphy said. “His willingness, his desire to serve the community and his desire to help kids is why he was chosen,” Murphy said.

BELA members said Leland’s fatal shooting of Gonzalez is problematic and unsuitable for someone who will interact with students on a daily basis. BELA members also took issue with Leland’s appearance on the TV show “Body Cam,” in which he discussed his fatal shooting of Gonzalez in an interview.

“We strongly opposed the district hiring a new [district resource officer] in the first place,” a BELA member said. “But the fact that they chose to hire Jeremiah Leland feels like a

particularly atrocious act and a slap in the face to those fighting for the district to acknowledge the rights and humanity of marginalized students, particularly BIPOC students.”

Dana Smith, Bellingham Public School’s communications manager, said the school district did not play a role in selecting the new district resource officer.

Leland is currently completing the specialized training required for resource officers to work in schools, Murphy said.

State law requires resource officers to be trained on a variety of topics including civil rights, de-escalation and recognizing and responding to mental health crises.

State law also prohibits resource officers from getting involved with formal student discipline that falls under the responsibility of school administrators.

BELA members say resource officers do more harm to the learning environment than good. 

“From our perspective as educators, police presence heightened anxiety and fear,” a BELA member said. “Which, as we know, it's really hard to learn when you're anxious and afraid. Especially for students in communities of color and immigrant communities.” 

A survey given to high school students in California showed that a student’s race influenced their perception of safety around police. A report by the ACLU shows that in Washington state, Black students and students with disabilities are referred to law enforcement three times more than white, non-disabled students. 

The district acknowledges that the presence of a police officer in school can have negative effects on some students, but the district is working to make improvements, Smith said. 

“Our continued responsibility as a school system is to build a safe and positive learning environment and to interrupt what has been called the school-to-prison pipeline,” Smith said. “Having a [district resource officer] who works collaboratively within the district’s restorative justice practices helps support a community that better serves all our students.”

BELA members said continuing to have police presence in schools is antithetical to restorative justice practices, which focus on repairing the harm of a crime rather than punishing the offender.

“They have claimed over and over and over again that they're using restorative justice practices in their schools, and we know looking at the history of restorative justice that it comes out of police and prison abolition,” one BELA member said. “It comes out of communities of color, specifically Black communities [and] specifically Black communities working with incarcerated folks to try to create a system of justice that works away from prisons and policing.”

Smith said district officials acknowledge that some students may feel unsafe in the presence of police, but the district resource officer isn’t at any one school for enough time to really impact those students. 

In addition to the resource officer, Bellingham schools have a wide range of support staff for students, Smith said.

“We also have over 30 school counselors across our 23 sites, plus campus monitors, prevention and intervention specialists,” Smith said. “As well as many paraeducators who work directly with students to provide support and relationship-building.”

Joseph Bryan, a special education professor at Clemson University, said schools need to increase the number of counselors and support staff, rather than relying on resource officers to deal with students who have behavioral issues.

“I would rather spend my dollars on staff that can actually help prevent violence because putting police in the schools has demonstrated it doesn’t,” Bryan said. “All it does is increase arrest rates.”

The Department of Education recommends schools have one counselor for every 250 students, Bryan said. There are approximately 12,000 students in Bellingham Public Schools; with over 30 counselors, the ratio of students to  counselors is 400-to-1.

More information about the roles and responsibilities of the district resource officer can be found here. More information about BELA and their fight to remove police from Bellingham Schools can be found here.


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