On Monday morning, thousands of Seattle Public School (SPS) students walked out of their schools and gathered outside of City Hall to demand action after a deadly shooting at Ingraham High School rattled the district last week.
While these tragedies often renew interest in putting cops in school, the Seattle Student Union demanded that the City defund the Seattle Police Department (SPD) in the coming City budget to pay for more counselors in Seattle schools. Council members, who called off their meeting to join the student protesters, said they support putting more money into counselors, but, in the face of a budget shortfall, the council did not make any promises to meet the demand in full.
At the rally, speakers recounted their terror when a 14-year-old student allegedly shot and killed a 17-year-old student in the school hallway. But they also expressed frustration that the school district, the City, and the State had failed to prevent the tragedy in the first place. After all, the Seattle Student Union organized a smaller rally at City Hall in June, calling for the “so-called adults in the room” to act.
“You could have taken action to prevent this from happening in the first place,” one Ingraham senior said at the rally. “Although it is true that it is never too late to make positive changes, any action taken after today won’t change the fact that there will be another empty chair at graduation.”
What the Students Want
In order to prevent future gun violence at school, the Seattle Student Union demanded the district increase anti-racist and de-escalation training for security at SPS. They also demanded that the State update safe storage laws and ban assault rifles.
As for the City, which does not have much power to regulate guns, the students asked the council to reroute $9 million from SPD to pay for counselors. The students calculated that this investment would be enough to pay a living wage for one counselor for every 200 high schoolers in Seattle, the same ratio the students demanded at the June rally.
The student protestors argued that mental health providers play an important role in preventing gun violence. As one recent Ingraham graduate said at the rally, “Kids do not regularly kill kids. There is something deeply wrong for this to be happening.”
As it stands, the ratio of counselors to students varies from school to school at SPS. According to an SPS spokesperson, the district generally provides one counselor for every 350 students, which the Seattle Education Association fought to lower from 1:375 in its contract this year. The SPS spokesperson did not know how much the district pays for counselors, nor did he know whether $9 million would cover the cost to lower the current counselor-to-student ratio to 1:200. I’ll update if he responds.
What the Council Will Give Them
On Monday, budget chair Teresa Mosqueda revealed her adjustments to the biennial City budget, which included about $3 million from “JumpStart” payroll tax revenue to pay for mental health counselors in schools. Mosqueda said she added this funding in response to the shooting, bringing the City’s total investment in school mental health services–not specifically counselors–to $9 million each year for both years.
This addition does not meet the student demands, but Chetan Soni, an organizer with the Seattle Student Union, called it a step in the right direction.
Mosqueda agreed. She said the money only represented “a downpayment,” and she and other council members want to find more money. But with a $145 million budget shortfall, council members don’t have a clear idea of where to find that money in the next two years.
While Mosqueda did not specifically commit to defunding SPD and reinvesting that money into mental health counselors, she said “everything has to be on the table.”
Soni said he and other organizers are open to other funding sources, especially from progressive revenue streams such as the payroll tax. But tapping SPD’s huge budget seemed like an easy target that “wouldn’t mess with any critical departments,” he said in a phone interview.
Other council members in attendance also didn’t jump at the chance to make cuts to SPD. To balance the budget, Mosqueda already cut $1.7 million each year from the $375 million Mayor Bruce Harrell proposed to spend on SPD’s budget.
Ask Your Dad
While Council Members Dan Strauss, Andrew Lewis, and Tammy Morales all supported putting City funds toward the goal of one counselor for every 200 students, they didn’t think the City should bear that financial burden alone.
Strauss and Lewis both noted that Seattle funds public schools more than most cities through the Department of Education and Early Learning. And, ultimately, the State is responsible for funding education. Lewis said he was disappointed he did not see many—if any—state lawmakers at the rally that morning. Of course, in a big crowd, it would be hard to say for sure who did not make an appearance, he added.
Regardless of what entity is technically responsible for the success and safety of public schooling, Soni said the students asked the council because it is currently in budget negotiations while the State Legislature is not even in session. He said the student demands could not wait for January, and that meeting the demands should have never taken this long in the first place. Besides, every level of government should want to fund safety in schools whether they are required to or not, Soni said.
Mosqueda agreed. “We all need to be stepping up,” she said.