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In Our View: Protecting Clark

Should community college's campus have a regular police presence?

The Columbian
Published: January 4, 2015, 4:00pm

Local high school students see them daily in the lunchrooms, in the parking lots, at games. They’re school resource officers, armed police who are dedicated to patrolling the campuses of local high schools. Found in all of the Vancouver and Evergreen district high schools, the officers work for the Vancouver Police Department or the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.

Washington State University has long had its own police force, with sworn — and armed — law enforcement officers on its campuses, including WSU Vancouver.

About the only local school campus where police presence isn’t part of the daily routine is Clark College. But in a society where campus shootings are becoming all too common, is that good enough?

That’s what the college’s president, Bob Knight, is wondering.

“The likelihood of a school shooting is remote, but maybe it’s our turn, and I don’t want to have not done anything,” Knight told The Columbian’s Emily Gillespie recently.

A look at the headlines easily confirms Knight’s concerns. But finding a solution is not so easy. For one thing, state law does not allow community colleges to operate their own police forces. And even if the laws were changed, police protection is expensive. Each officer costs more than $100,000 per year to train and equip. Finding that much money in the college budget could detract from its academic mission.

Another problem: Clark College’s campus is much bigger than that of Clark County high schools, and its school day is much longer. Its many buildings and open campus accommodates many more staff and students than WSU Vancouver. It would take an entire force of officers to watch over Clark’s 100-acre Central Park campus. And that doesn’t even include satellite locations.

Of course, Clark College already has a security force. The college employs eight full-time security guards and many more part-timers. Guards carry pepper spray and handcuffs, but otherwise are not armed, and do not have the police power of arrest. If a police officer is needed, the college calls 911 and a Vancouver officer responds.

The security force helps deter petty thefts such as car prowls. But Knight still worries about more serious incidents. One option might be to follow the lead of Vancouver Public Schools, which pays about $225,000 to hire Vancouver police, one each at Hudson’s Bay and Fort Vancouver high schools. Again, the money would have to be found in the budget.

Recently Knight brought the idea of hiring a Vancouver police officer or two to patrol the campus to the College Council, an advisory group of faculty, staff and students. The reception was mixed. Students were generally more supportive of the idea, while employees had reservations about introducing armed police officers in an academic environment.

A final option might be to simply set up a desk for police officers to use while they are on campus. By sitting at the desk to write their reports, visible to passersby, it would be a lower-cost solution to increasing police presence.

To be sure, none of these ideas could prevent a campus tragedy, such as a mass shooting. That sort of security would be impossible to impose in an academic environment where people are free to come and go. But Knight is right. There’s merit in examining whether the college’s current security measures are enough in a modern world fraught with peril.