In the wake of yet another school shooting, the killing of Amarr Murphy-Paine at Garfield High School, some people are calling for the return of cops in our public schools. Parents are understandably frightened, but cops in schools won’t make our children safe. Rather, they will be used to discipline and intimidate students. My family knows this from bitter experience. 

In 2017, my son, then a 17-year-old at Garfield High School, witnessed a horrifying hazing incident in the swim team locker room. In 2019, he saw possible sexual misconduct and reported the incident to school officials, but nothing was investigated. In January 2020, he reported his observations to a student journalist from the school newspaper, and I got a call from the Garfield school resource officer (SRO)—that is, from a cop assigned to the school. When I picked up the phone, I thought the SRO would be offering help. But he said, “I want you to tell your son to STOP talking to the newspaper.” Those words marked the start of our long battle with Seattle Public Schools and the police they employed. 

As we would soon learn, this call was not from an SRO gone rogue. He was doing exactly what the district wanted. The district did not want the public to know that my son had seen naked seniors squatting over first-year faces while forcing the first-years to do sit-ups. So it turned to the SRO to shut down my son.  

That phone call was just the start of the SRO’s role in the school’s attempt to silence my son. Before I received the phone call, the vice principal brought my son to his office, where the SRO, armed and in full police uniform, stood over my son.  They shut the door and ordered him to stop talking to the press, telling him it would “not be in his best interests'' to keep speaking out.  

My son was terrified and crying by the time his dad arrived. With the SRO blocking the door, the vice principal made my husband and son sign a document that would ensure my son’s silence, a so-called “safety plan.” This safety plan was actually a disciplinary contract designed for juvenile offenders, with punitive consequences and a threat of disciplinary actions and expulsion for disobeying orders, which in this case included a demand to stop talking to the press. 

In a deposition, the SRO later admitted that he wasn’t in the vice principal’s office to investigate anything. During that interview, he said he was there to be “a presence in the room.” In my view, that means he was used as intimidation to enforce my son’s silence. The police uniform and gun gave the impression that my son could be arrested unless he complied.

When we filed a complaint with the district’s Office of Student Civil Rights, the district’s investigator was a former police officer. The investigator attacked my son’s credibility and accused him of “embellishing” due to his “condition.” He declared that the school principal has the right to stop the publication of the school newspaper, even though that is against Washington state law.  

The district was confident it had the law on its side, in the form of the police. The presence of police at school gave the appearance of legitimacy and legality to the district’s actions, whether those actions were legal or not.    

My son’s mental health plummeted after the encounter with the police at Garfield. Some of the numerous staff involved in the successful suppression of the newspaper article were promoted to top tiers, and no one from the district was ever held accountable for using the presence of the SRO to silence my son about the hazing.  

I don’t know if having an SRO at Garfield would have prevented school shootings, but I do know that the district uses SROs to discipline and intimidate students. The SROs are used by the district as weapons of control and intimidation. Police in schools do not make our students safer. 

Amanda Thornewell is the parent of a former Garfield student and current high- schooler in Seattle Public Schools. Her son recently won a settlement with the school district.