Wahluke School District to work with Mattawa Police Department for SRO

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MATTAWA — The Wahluke School District approved a contract with the Mattawa Police Department for School Resource Officer (SRO) services during a regular board meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 12.

“The contract basically says that starting Dec. 1, the city will provide us with one SRO with a second one by fall,” said Robert Eckert, Wahluke School District superintendent. “The two SROs will be over a five-year period. Their work shifts would be flexible. When there was an activity, one would come in early and the other would come in later, so we don’t have to pay overtime. There would be one on duty every day. If both SROs are gone on the same day, they would send the on-duty officer over.”

Before the vote on the contract, there was discussion about the possibility of the district hiring their own SRO or arming teachers.

“We don’t need a cop,” said Seth Weeks, board member. “We need someone to help the principals and get involved at the grade school level.”

Eckert informed Weeks that districts already employs Shelby Jensen as the district’s safety coordinator. When asked if she was going into the classrooms, Eckert said that he is having her go into classrooms more than in the past. He also pointed out that if the district hired someone for the SRO position, that person would not be able to make arrests and would have to call the police for help.

When Weeks asked why the SRO had to be an officer, board member Jesse Chiprez said that the SRO should be an officer because they have a gun if something drastic were to occur.

“You were probably in school when someone came in with a hunting rifle,” Chiprez said. “I can see why you want someone there.”

Weeks countered that the district would be paying for the city’s officers. He suggested arming Eckert and school principals. An audience member pointed out that arming teachers would probably raise the district insurance and liability.

Board member Craig Sabin asked why the district couldn’t hire one full-time officer and one part-time officer.

“That’s what we had with the county,” Eckert said. “We paid almost the same, $135,000, to the county for the past year for one SRO. Joe’s (Mattawa Police Chief Joe Harris) proposal is to come up with two. We’ll have a little bit more coverage.”

Weeks countered that the Mattawa Police Department officers are already present at some of the events the SROs would cover.

“They’re asking us to pay them for what they’re doing unpaid,” Weeks said. “They have to respond because it’s part of their city. I feel it will benefit the city more than Wahluke.”

When asked if he didn’t see a benefit to having an SRO, Weeks replied that he wants the “best bang for the buck.”

When Chiprez pointed out that if the district were to hire their own SRO and that the officer would not be credentialed with the state, Weeks reminded him that staff in the Toppenish School District were carrying guns. One of the teachers in the audience mentioned that he had been on the Desert Aire board when they decided to use the sheriff’s office for their security instead of a private security company.

“If they shot someone, it would have gone on Desert Aire’s liability,” said the teacher.

As the discussion came to a close, board chairman Lorraine Jenne asked when the district would be without an officer.

“December 1,” Eckert said.

Jenne asked Weeks why he was hesitant about the agreement when he had pushed for such an agreement in past years. Weeks said that he had talked to a previous police chief who had told him that the Mattawa Police Department wasn’t big enough.

Chiprez pointed out that there was language in the agreement that the district had a trial period for the SRO.

“If they don’t have the second officer by Sept. 1, that’s another exit,” Chiprez said. “I like it.”

The agreement passed unanimously with board member Maybeline Pantaleon, a member of the Mattawa Police Department, abstaining from voting and all conversation.

The Mattawa Police Department will provide one School Resource Officer to the Wahluke School District starting Dec. 1. They will provide a second officer on or before Sept. 1, 2020.

Rachal Pinkerton may be reached via email at rpinkerton@suntribunenews.com.

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