Chuck Atkins says his department can do a better job showing young people the humanity of law enforcement officers
VANCOUVER — The calls to Gaiser Middle School on March 15 didn’t seem real to Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins as the reports came in from his deputies.
“The shock for me was, at first I almost had to smile a little bit thinking I hear about a riot at a middle school and, you know that, in and of itself, sounds a little odd,” said Atkins during a recent sit-down interview with ClarkCountyToday.com. “But when I saw some of the footage and I read some of the reports and talked to some of the people involved, they were totally shocked with the amount of anger coming from such a young population of folks, especially in our schools.”
The riot, sparked by the removal of a student involved in a dispute during a youth basketball tournament, spilled out into the parking lot of the school. Video taken by students and parents showed school officials being shoved. Deputies and Vancouver Police who responded to the scene reported threats and profanity being shouted at them as a number of students surrounded the adults.
Nine students were arrested, though most later had charges dropped or reduced, and 28 students were “emergency expelled” for at least 10 days. The Vancouver School District has worked hard to move on from the incident, aiming to restore students who were impacted.
“Our community is really used to a little more structure, and people being a little more courteous to each other, and respecting law enforcement,” said Atkins. “And to have an out and out attack on school officials, physical attacks on school officials, and the name-calling and the actions of the young middle schoolers against law enforcement was really a surprise.”
Arrest reports released by the Clark County Sheriff’s Office seem to lend some support to community remarks that recent officer-involved shootings by Vancouver Police played at least some part in the reactions of students. One 13-year old accused deputies of shooting a relative days before. That relative was Carlos Hunter, who Vancouver Police say was shot during a traffic stop when he tried to pull out a stolen handgun during his arrest.
“I understand where that emotion comes from,” says Atkins, while adding that, even if recent police shootings had created emotional shockwaves among the youth at Gaiser Middle School, it’s concerning that it manifested in such an aggressive and disrespectful fashion. “Certainly they have the right to protest or to be angry about something, but they need to do it in a civil manner.”
So what does the second-term sheriff and long-time law enforcement officer see as the solution?
“Part of that, I think, starts at home with the parents. Then it does go to the schools. However, the schools should not be the ones responsible for raising those kids in a way that they should show the respect that they should show.”
Atkins says his department is hoping to learn some lessons from what comes out of the Gaiser incident. Conversations are happening between the district and members of the community, and the sheriff’s office intends to be a part of that.
One thing Atkins says they might consider is to make school resource officers more visible in lower grade level schools, instead of spending the bulk of their time in the high schools and only responding to middle or elementary schools when there’s an actual incident.
“We could broaden, maybe, the scope of our program,” says Atkins, “getting those law enforcement officers into those schools as often as we can so that the students get used to seeing them, understanding them.”
That exposure, he believes, could be key to helping younger people erase some of the stigma and fear that often surrounds police officers. The key element, he says, is “face to face interactions. If you know someone it’s more difficult to throw out language that is enticing, if you actually have a connection to them.
“We’re human too,” Atkins adds. “We’re no different than their parents, we just have maybe a different job.”