Spokane Public Schools and Spokane Police are fighting about when to put kids in jail. It’s a conflict years in the making. Plus, more PFAS contamination news.

It’s time for Additional Context: a weekly look at news that was underreported, misunderstood, or could benefit from a little additional background.


Luke | You know a divorce has gotten messy when it ends up in the press.

Especially when one side says, “let’s meet and talk about this” and the other side runs to a reporter. As with all breakups, there’s a bit of a backstory.

In June 2020, As part of an equity-focused revision of its Safety Model, Spokane Public Schools began a very public separation from law enforcement, announcing its intention to remove the ability of Campus Resource Officers (CROs) to make arrests. CROs were cops in all but name. While they were employed by the District and not the Spokane Police, they had SPD commissions allowing them to investigate crimes, file reports, arrest kids and take them to jail. The changes took effect after a second vote in early September 2020.

None of the reporting from that time includes quotes from the Spokane Police and the only mention of community comment was in favor of the change. Other than a change.org petition opposing the decommissioning of CROs that barely got 800 signatures (there are approximately 30,000 students within the SPS system), the changes didn’t seem to cause much stir, and the relationship between SPS and SPD seemed pretty normal.

That is: until a couple weeks ago.

On Friday, March 11, in a move that seemed to catch a lot of people off-guard, Police Chief Craig Meidl wrote a letter to Spokane Public Schools Superintendent Adam Swinyard accusing the district of ignoring “a pattern of assaults and threats to students and staff” that the District is legally bound to report under Washington State law.

By Monday, the district had sent a response to Meidl saying, actually, they believed they were following that law to the letter.

In an apparent show of solidarity, the district letter was signed by School Board President Mike Wiser, Vice President Nikki Lockwood, and Superintendent Swinyard, along with Paul Gannon and Jeremy Shay, presidents of the Spokane Principals Association and the Spokane Education Association, respectively. They requested a meeting with Meidl, Mayor Woodward, City Council President Beggs, and City Civil Rights Officer (and former school board president) Jerrall Haynes.

It’s unclear when or if that meeting is going to happen, but that same day, Meidl granted an interview to KREM’s Laura Pepetti in which he made grave but vague allegations that educators and administrators were suppressing “the full gamut [of crimes]. It’s assaults. It’s threats. It’s assaults of every magnitude. It’s threats against other students. It’s threats against staff members. So, uh, it’s the full gamut.”

By Tuesday, the local FBI office was looking into the matter, expanding the “full gamut” of crimes to include “assaults, sexual assaults, threats of violence, and drug use.” It’s important to note the reason we know the FBI is involved was a different city official leaking an email on Facebook, further prosecuting the case through the media – social media this time.

It is hard to overstate how irregular it is for law enforcement to go straight to the media with complaints about another institution like this. And in using scary language without offering real details, Meidl is working from a playbook that both SPD and Sheriff Knezovich have used a lot over the years. Remember the fearmongering about antifa?

It’s absolutely possible that the school district is failing to report serious, specific crimes, but we haven’t seen any evidence of that yet. If Meidl has information to that effect, he has a duty to the people of Spokane and the kids in its schools, to be as specific, precise, and public as possible. But because this is the court of public opinion – the court Meidl chose – he is able to get away with innuendo.

And the press, to this point, has let his narrative drive coverage. With the exception of Rebecca White of Spokane Public Radio – who publicly said she filed a records request and whose coverage we will talk about momentarily – and a tweet from KXLY News Director Melissa Luck, we haven’t seen public questions asking Meidl for specific details of the allegations.

We have seen calls for the school district to respond. Of course we should want to hear more from the school district here, and not just through letters. But we also need to acknowledge that when the police come straight to the media, they know exactly what they're doing. Fear and uncertainty feed into their power as an institution, and they approach reporters or let letters get leaked to establish a narrative. It's our job as journalists to clarify it, not follow it.

Haven’t we learned by now to not take police narratives at face value?

Do schools have a legal obligation to report crimes? Certain ones, absolutely. Smoking weed under the bleachers? Probably not. The law Meidl cites, RCW 26.44.030, also known as “Duty to Report,” is pretty specific in its language about when teachers and school officials (and also any for-profit or non-profit with “official supervisory capacity” over kids, such as daycares, for that matter), have an obligation to report crime:

When any practitioner … has reasonable cause to believe that a child has suffered abuse or neglect, he or she shall report such incident, or cause a report to be made, to the proper law enforcement agency.

The law elaborates that yes, this includes suspicions of abuse by teachers and other school officials.

So let’s take a closer look at Meidl’s words. When he says, “It’s threats against other students. It’s threats against staff members,” [emphasis added] he is clearly saying kids are threatening each other and they are threatening staff. Presumably he also means kids are assaulting each other. Getting in fights and whatnot.

He does not insinuate teachers are beating up kids, or staff is letting signs of abuse at home go unreported.

While the law draws a broad definition of who is capable of abusing or neglecting a kid, it does not specifically call out other children. Spokane district policy, however, does. The policy reads, in part: “Children (including other students), family members, and any other adult can engage in child abuse, neglect, or exploitation.”

And fair enough. As a kid who got bullied pretty badly at points in my life, it sure felt like abuse.

But while it’s possible, under the district’s own interpretation of the law, for one student to abuse or neglect another, there’s nothing in state law or district policy that suggests a kid threatening a teacher or staff would trigger Duty to Report, despite Meidl’s claims. The law doesn’t mention anything about drug use.

And while this is digging into the minutiae of the law, a primary intent of the law is to ensure rigorous reporting of suspected domestic violence against children. In an interview with Spokane Public Radio’s Rebecca White, Meidl later clarified that none of his reports alleged that staff ignored possible abuse by a parent or guardian.

In its response, the District goes on the offensive, saying it has information Meidl has had these unspecified reports since the beginning of the school year and he has never brought them up, even when meeting with district leaders recently.

Surely, if the behaviors were serious enough to trigger Duty to Report and staff failed to do so, it would be equally negligent of Chief Meidl to wait to let the district know its staff was asleep on the job.

Beyond their respective interpretations of the law, it’s clear the Chief and the District are at odds over a matter of legal — and really, societal — philosophy: When and for what acts should kids become justice involved?

Perhaps more bluntly: What good is criminal punishment for kids?

In de-commissioning its CROs and adopting policies to limit contact with police, SPS has made its position clear since mid-2020. The Chief still hasn’t clearly stated his. And in not actually providing the reports he claims to have read, we don’t know the severity of any of these crimes, (or indeed whether evidence would support charging), so we can’t even hazard a guess.

As the story stands, there are more questions like this than concrete answers. Another question: if Meidl had sat on these reports for this long, what made him write the letter on March 11?

He hasn’t said, but just two days prior — in what we are sure is pure coincidence! — SPS approved a new safety policy that urges staff to take every reasonable step to de-escalate without calling the cops, “using law enforcement only as the absolute last resort and only for incidents for which law enforcement is necessary to address a serious threat to school safety.”

That language seemed to be on Meidl’s mind in that interview with Spokane Public Radio, saying, “we need also for the school district to acknowledge that law enforcement does have a role to play. If it's the last resort, that's ok, but let's make sure we're following the law.”

The irony of that statement is that law enforcement had a primary role in starting the district’s transition away from arresting kids in the first place, during an incident happened at Ferris High School in early 2019, and involved the most public example of reportable child abuse on Spokane Public Schools property in recent memory.

The abuser? A former Spokane Sheriff Deputy: Resource Officer Shawn Audie, who is shown in this video pressing his elbow into a Black teen boy’s neck and restraining him in a way that the child’s parents contended caused trauma. Off-camera, witnesses described Audie also putting his knee to the child’s neck. Later, the Inlander uncovered that Audie had left the Sheriff’s department to avoid termination after multiple accusations of excessive force, including striking an elderly man in the head with a baton and later killing another man with a vascular neck restraint — law enforcement jargon for a choke hold.

Thankfully, the child survived his encounter with Audie. Audie resigned when his past came out and the district eventually settled with the boy’s family for $275,000.


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My Forever Chemical Romance

Valerie | The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just published its report on Airway Heights’ tainted water and found that residents near the Fairchild Air Force base contamination site have high levels of chemicals in their blood and urine.

Airway Heights discovered contamination in their water source in 2017 from now-banned firefighting foam used in training exercises at the base that seeped into the groundwater and nearby wells. The city had to switch to providing bottled water and pumping water in from Spokane at a high cost.  

The chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances AKA PFAS, are often called “forever chemicals,” because they take so long to break down. Certain ones can remain in the environment indefinitely, according to the CDC. They are known to cause health problems including cholesterol issues, reduced birth weight, and cancer

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry from the CDC studied 333 participants, including 47 children, who all had to have received drinking water from the affected area for at least one year before June 2017. They collected samples of blood and urine and in some cases, household dust to analyze.

The report said some PFAS were found in participants’ blood at up to 56 times higher than the national average.

Read more from Kip Hill at The Spokesman-Review.

DON'T MISS THESE READS:

How a Rotary presentation on "racial inequities" helped lead to criminal justice administrator Maggie Yates' resignation

“This wasn't a resignation about spending more time with her family or about being ready for new challenges. It was about whether she was allowed to do her job.

- Daniel Walters, The Inlander

Spokane’s homeless system may be growing, with more beds proposed to help get people ‘into better circumstances’

“Meanwhile, hundreds of people are living in tents and vehicles at Camp Hope. It’s no kind of solution. It is tangible, visible proof of a lack of one. If there is something in the offing that would give the people there a place to go – rather than just being urged to go away – then it would truly be progress.”

- Shawn Vestal, The Spokesman-Review

GOOD NEWS, AS A TREAT

Minimum Pay AND Some Protections for Uber and Lyft Drivers?!

The state Legislature earlier this month passed a bill that sets minimum pay for ride-share drivers and gives them some employee protections.

HB 2076 is headed to Gov. Jay Inslee to be signed into law. The bill gives drivers in Washington a minimum of $3 per trip or $0.34 per minute plus $1.17 per mile driven with a passenger (whichever is greater) starting in 2023. It also requires that companies give drivers paid sick leave: for every 40 hours they spend driving passengers, they get one hour of paid sick time.

Read all about it from Albert James in The Spokesman-Review.

A Salmon Release Offers Some Hope for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe recently released hundreds of salmon into Hangman Creek in an effort to eventually restore salmon in the Upper Columbia River. The released salmon – 80 of which are tagged with a type of tracker – will try to make their way past the dams that have blocked the habitat of the fish for decades.

Researchers will study the data from the fish and how far they get and hope to find out how they can restore salmon in the Upper Columbia.

Read the heartwarming story from Courtney Flatt at Spokane Public Radio.

ICYMI

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