County board denies sheriff’s request to hire deputy to work in Steamboat schools
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that Sheriff Garrett Wiggins did not directly mention protests over police violence or the murder of George Floyd. Wiggins said he felt the school resource deputy could help with “this misunderstanding between the law enforcement profession and society, like we are seeing in this day and time.”
The Routt County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday denied Sheriff Garrett Wiggins’ request to hire another deputy that would serve as a school resource officer in two schools in the Steamboat Springs School District.
Currently, the Steamboat Springs Police Department provides one officer that works in all schools in the district within city limits and is based out of Steamboat Springs High School where they spend most of their time, according to Police Chief Cory Christensen.
Strawberry Park Elementary, Steamboat Springs Middle and Sleeping Giant schools are all outside Steamboat’s city limits and under the jurisdiction of the sheriff’s office, not Steamboat police.
The jurisdictional issue was the crux of Wiggins’ argument for hiring the officer.
“In my opinion, if the Routt County Sheriff’s Office is required to investigate these criminal incidents in schools, then the responsibility to engage and prevent school violence also rests on our shoulders,” Wiggins said in a meeting Tuesday, reading from a prepared statement.
The district is looking to expand to have two school resource officers, with the second primarily focusing on Sleeping Giant and the middle school.
Ultimately, commissioners decided it was not appropriate for the county to pay for this service for the Steamboat Springs School District, which has its own taxing authority. Commissioner Tim Redmond said since the county does not pay for a similar service for the county’s other two school districts, it should not provide such for the county’s “most financially stable school district.”
“I am looking at a situation where we are not meeting the needs of the entire county,” Redmond said.
“If this service is that important to the school districts, they should find a way to pay for it,” Commissioner Tim Corrigan added.
The county’s ability to pay for the deputy is not the issue. Corrigan said it was also his belief that the county should not pay for it and adding full-time staff outside the normal budget process is not a good idea.
Oak Creek Police Department officers visit schools in the South Routt School District when possible, but there is no stationed officer in any building. District Superintendent Rim Watson said the district made a one-time $11,000 contribution in the previous budget cycle to support these efforts.
There is no stationed officer at schools in Hayden either, but Hayden Police Chief Greg Tuliszewski said he has several officers trained as resource officers. He said there is not currently space in the department’s budget for a dedicated resource officer and efforts to fund one with grants have been unsuccessful.
“I am not necessarily going to say I am opposed to funding school resource officers,” Redmond said. “I want it to be fair across the board, especially for those other two school districts that are looking at some serious financial hardships with closing of coal mines and power plants.”
After Redmond and Corrigan articulated their opposition to funding another deputy, Wiggins offered another justification for the job.
“Considering the continued issue that we have with school shootings across this nation and violence in our schools, this is not only important to me personally, it is important to me professionally,” Wiggins said. “In my mind you cannot put a price on our kids’ heads.”
A study of 133 school shootings since 1980 by researchers at Hamline University in Minnesota found that having an armed presence in a school, like a resource officer, did not reduce rates of injury. Conversely, the study, published in February, found that the rate of death was significantly higher in schools with armed personnel — 2.8 times more — than those without.
Christensen, chief of police in Steamboat, said in an email that his current school resource officer does provide some deterrence against violence in schools, as police do elsewhere in society, but that the job is about more than just school safety.
“The mission of the (school resource officer) goes well beyond the school shooting example,” Christensen said. “Our program is designed for the (school resource officer) to be a part of a positive learning environment and in partnership with the leadership and staff at the school.”
Wiggins also said the resource officer would be about more than just security, but about meeting the office’s goals when it comes to community policing. He said programs like this could help clear up the misunderstanding between police and society. Sparked by the police murder last year of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the country has seen historic protests against police violence that disproportionately impacts people of color.
“I think it is best if we start young with kids while they are in schools to build those relationships so there is not all this misunderstanding between the law enforcement profession and society, like we are seeing in this day and time,” Wiggins said.
In his proposal, Wiggins said the alternative would be for him to give a Steamboat officer authority to operate in schools in the county. Christensen said he currently has one officer that works in schools and he would need approval from the Steamboat Springs City Council before he could hire another.
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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