LA CONNER — Skagit County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Jeff Willard asked students at La Conner Middle School an important question: With his tool belt, vest and boots, how much extra weight did they think he was carrying?
The answers he received during his May 29 school visit varied — between eight and 100 pounds.
One girl, who said she and her mother watched a lot of the TV show “Cops,” knew the correct answer: 30 pounds.
In each class he visited, Willard’s conversation with the students was more chit-chat than business.
“We’re not here because anyone’s in trouble,” Willard told the students. “We’re here because we enjoy being in the schools. (We want) to get to know you guys.”
The Sheriff’s Office is hoping that, throughout the county, visits such as Willard’s will become common.
“We’re trying to get into schools in the county as much as we can,” Skagit County Undersheriff Chad Clark said. “Let the kids know that we’re human too.”
The department recently launched a pilot program that will allow it to get more deputies in more schools throughout the county, not for enforcement but for camaraderie.
“We’re going in simply for mentorship,” Clark said. “We’re going in for ‘Hey, we’re your friend.’”
The Concrete, La Conner and Sedro-Woolley school boards have each recently signed interlocal agreements with the Sheriff’s Office that will allow the districts to pay for overtime for deputies so they can spend uninterrupted time with kids in those districts.
“We don’t want our kids to be afraid of law enforcement,” said Sedro-Woolley School District Superintendent Phil Brockman. “(We want them to) feel comfortable with law enforcement and see that they’re good guys and that they’re here to help.”
In the Sedro-Woolley district, deputies will be visiting with students at Lyman, Big Lake, Clear Lake and Samish elementary schools
Getting deputies into schools to build relationships with students is something the Sheriff’s Office has been striving to do, Clark said. Previously, on-duty deputies have visited schools to have lunch with kids, but other tasks can take them away.
“It’s too difficult to do it on duty,” Clark said.
The department applied for a federal Community Oriented Policing Services Hiring Program grant, but was informed those funds were unavailable, Clark said.
According to the Associated Press, that grant funding is tied up in a legal battle about immigration policy between the U.S. Department of Justice and jurisdictions such as the city of Los Angeles, which claims the Trump administration is giving the funds to jurisdictions it says comply more with the administration’s immigration policies.
Not knowing when those funds will be available, Clark said he didn’t want to wait to start the program and instead approached the school districts with another option.
The new program allows off-duty deputies to volunteer to spend four-hour periods in the schools, and the school districts will pay their overtime, Clark said.
“We both have the same mission,” Concrete Superintendent Wayne Barrett said of the partnership with the Sheriff’s Office. “It comes down to relationships. If the only time a kid ever sees a police officer is when they’re in their home for something bad, that’s not a good thing.”
La Conner School District Superintendent Whitney Meissner said seeing a law enforcement vehicle outside a school is often seen as a sign that something is wrong or that a student has done something bad.
She hopes this partnership will change that.
“(It’s for) our community to see our kids in the best light and our kids to see law enforcement in the best light,” Meissner said. “It’s no big deal if there’s a police car parked outside the school. In fact, it’s a cool thing.”
In the classrooms, Willard talked with students about his 25-year career in law enforcement and what it’s like to be one of three deputies who rides a motorcycle for work.
“I love motorcycles, bicycles and anything with wheels on it,” he told sixth graders.
Willard encouraged students to stop by the La Conner sheriff’s station and say “hi” to him.
“We’re not just some uniform in a car that only shows up when something bad happens,” he said. “We’re the guardians of your town, and we’re here to help. We’re always within 10 minutes.”
The program is different than a school having a traditional resource officer because unlike school resource officers the deputies volunteer for the positions and could visit any of the schools in the partnership, Clark said.
It also varies from the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer positions, he said, because the deputies will not be going into the schools to teach any sort of curriculum.
“They can concentrate their time in schools with kids and act as a mentor,” Clark said. “Go into classrooms, play at recess.”
Each of the districts are expecting the cost to be minimal.
For his district, Barret said he expects the cost to be about $20,000 a year.
“We believe that it’s important for our school district,” Barrett said. “It’s a place for us to start.”
Only two of Skagit County’s seven public school districts have dedicated school resource officers.
The Mount Vernon Police Department has a designated school resource officer — paid with a combination of city and school district dollars — who splits his time between the Mount Vernon School District’s two middle schools, Lt. Greg Booth said.
The department also employees a neighborhood resource officer who focuses on the city’s West Hill neighborhood, particularly near Mount Vernon High School, he said.
In 2015, the Anacortes Police Department added a school resource officer to work with students at its middle school and high school. That officer is also funded with a combination of city and district dollars.
Next year, Clark said, he hopes to expand the program to other schools.
“It’ll stick with these kids,” he said. “They’ll remember us, and not just as the bad guy. We want to be known as someone they can trust.”