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News / Northwest

Seattle schools say they can’t stop area shootings, need help to deter them

By Monica Velez, The Seattle Times
Published: June 8, 2023, 7:45am

SEATTLE — The recent spate of shootings and threats of gun violence near Garfield High School have prompted school district leaders, city police, parent, and community organizations to begin working together to deter violence around Seattle’s Central District school.

Garfield High hosted a meeting Monday evening to address those concerns, the first in what is expected to be a series of meetings to talk about actions to keep students and staff safe.

“Do I think the solutions we come up with will make gun violence go away? Absolutely not,” said Kayla Epting, Garfield PTSA president. “But I think we can create a community where people think twice before bringing violence into the community.”

Epting said it will take parents, community partners, police, and Seattle Public Schools all working together to quell the violence, and “I’m convinced we can get this done.”

“It will be critical for our community partners to stay engaged,” she said. “I don’t want to wait for something catastrophic to happen.”

The meeting, attended by about 100 people and closed to reporters, was organized by the Garfield PTSA. In a statement, Principal Tarance Hart said the meeting was scheduled before last week’s school closure and it “has become even more important to all of us after a threat led to early dismissal on Thursday and remote learning on Friday.”

Hart said he is concerned about the increase in violence in the community, and the goal of the meeting was “to identify solutions and strategies that we can implement to address safety concerns about our campus after school hours.”

Garfield and Nova High School are within blocks of each other and both had to close Friday after school officials were warned there was a threat of gun violence in the neighborhood. Before the school closure, there were three shootings in the area. Classes resumed in person Monday, but some students still haven’t returned to school out of caution.

Garfield teacher Tim Zimmerman said that of his 160 students, five haven’t returned because of the recent violence and a handful have been absent for unknown reasons.

“We had a remote day last week, and all day we were sitting on the computer having conversations with kids about how they’re feeling,” said Zimmerman, a language arts and journalism teacher.

The gun violence began around 4:30 p.m. May 18, during Garfield track and softball practice. A 19-year-old man was found shot and wounded in the Teen Life Center parking lot, which is owned by the city and next door to Garfield. Students had to shelter in place until police officers arrived.

On May 24, about a block from Garfield, police found shell casings and a bullet hole in a parked car, although they did not find a victim. On May 26, officers found a man who had been shot, along with a semiautomatic handgun, near the Teen Life Center on 25th Avenue and East Jefferson Street.

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Superintendent Brent Jones attended Monday night’s meeting and, in a statement, said gun violence and threats need to be addressed at other schools as well. He said the district has to rely on community partners and police to help address the safety concerns in the area.

“We are taking these threats very seriously and being proactive as well as reactive,” Jones said. “While these actions (closing school Friday) address the immediate concerns, we know we cannot act alone.”

The city has started addressing student mental health at five SPS schools using $4.5 million to fund a mental health pilot, although neither Garfield nor Nova are part of the pilot. The program has allowed the district to hire extra staffers, including bilingual staff at schools with a high percentage of kids who speak a language other than English, as well as mental health clinicians. It’s also paying for trauma-informed trainings.

The city of Seattle’s Department of Education and Early Learning is committed to creating spaces for students to thrive, Dwane Chappelle, director of the department, said in a statement. He also attended the meeting.

Police Chief Adrian Diaz, who attended the meeting, was not available for comment. Police have not said if they believe the recent shootings were connected, but they have said Garfield students were not involved.

“The shootings are still under investigation, and there is no further information to release at this time,” a Seattle Police Department spokesperson said. “The Seattle Police Department will provide emphasis patrols before and after school; unfortunately, the exact details of personnel, resource allocation, and tactics cannot be shared.”

Zimmerman said he was one of about 15 staffers who attended and described it as a listening session. Some attendees raised the idea of having a police presence in the building, he said. SPS cut ties with the police department in June 2020 after George Floyd was killed in Minnesota.

“I wish we had mental health and social worker-type support for them (students),” Zimmerman said.

Jennifer Marquardt, a Garfield PTSA member who helped organize the meeting, said she felt optimistic about the conversation and said it was a “great first step.” The focus is to keep kids safe for the rest of the school year, which ends June 30.

“While some people really wanted hard solutions last night I don’t feel like that is a realistic expectation,” Marquardt said. “It’s a sort of new chapter and partnership between all these different organizations to make things better.”

Seattle police are seeking help to identify two suspects in the May 18 shooting. An update to SPD Blotter was posted Wednesday with photos of the alleged suspects.

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