Youth violence in King County: Prosecutors eye ‘Safer Schools Strategy’ as solution

Officials are concerned that kids skipping school is a pathway to crime. When it comes to curtailing the rising numbers of teenage lawbreakers, getting more kids to class and keeping them there may be the solution King County law enforcers have been looking for. 

"If you drop out of school, you’re more likely to enter the criminal justice system, you’re more likely to go to prison. So, the best thing we can do is keep our young people in school," said King County Prosecutor Leesa Manion.

The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office launched its Safer Schools Strategy. The strategy offers a multi-level targeted intervention plan to support safe districts for all students and prevent tragedies.

"We really wanted to focus on this comprehensive approach that addressed mental health, exposure to gun violence, substance-use disorders, social media influence, economic instability and just figure out how we can be supportive of our schools," said Jamie Kvistad, senior deputy prosecuting attorney and lead of the Safer Schools Strategy.

It’s been over a month since the murder of Chief Sealth High School student Mobarak Adam. The 15-year-old's family, friends, classmates, and teachers still don’t have answers to who killed him at a community center near campus. The sorrow felt at his school is something prosecutors don’t want other schools to endure, and they hope the Safer Schools Strategy can help prevent it.

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"As much as I can do to make schools a safer place, I think it’s critical. I think it’s critical for this generation, I think it’s critical for this community," said Kvistad. "I really do think that our community is safer if schools are safer."

King County prosecutors charged 733 juvenile offenses in 2020. There were 339 cases in 2021, 462 in 2022, and 682 in 2023. Almost two months into 2024, prosecutors said numbers are on pace to reach the 2020 level.

Kvistad said one of the biggest challenges driving the number of juveniles charged with crimes is truancy.

"A lot of the incoming cases that we see on our first appearance calendars, those kids are not in school. So, as much as we can connect our children with our schools, for me, that could make that number not rise as much," said Kvistad. "We are also seeing more of our juveniles with crimes that are committed with different jurisdictions that are investigating. So, we really want to kind of help coordinate those responses, figure out when the cases are coming in, figure out what’s holding up cases."

31 schools in the Seattle Public Schools district are designated as Title I, which have higher populations of low-income families. Kvistad said 40% of those middle schools and 30% of those elementary schools are seeing chronic absenteeism.

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"I think it’s very much this ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of our children. What are they going to be focused on during their day? Are they going to be at school or are they going to be out with their friends committing crimes?" said Kvistad.

Manion said students who drop out of school are more likely to enter the criminal justice system and go to prison. To avoid that pipeline, the Safer Schools Strategy is a collaboration between prosecutors, law enforcement, and districts for needed resources and tools.

"It’s a lot more coordinated response. And there’s also, I would say, probably more engagement in terms of tracking progress," said Manion.

"Are there ways that we could be present in that district that we haven’t before? Is there a need in that school that they weren’t even aware of that we can help fill? Or information we can help provide? This is part of the strategy," said Kvistad. "It’s never a hopeless cause, there’s always a solution. We just have to work to find that solution."

The Safer Schools Strategy also considers more training for resource officers and school personnel.  

Since Fall 2023, prosecutors said there have been 40 notifications to schools after a child pleads guilty. Those cases include violent offense, sex offenses, firearms and weapons, and unlawful possession or delivery of a controlled substance.

"What we are doing now with our Safer Schools Strategy is, with pending cases, we are notifying the schools. Particularly, with our felony firearm offenses. We’re also really asking all of our probation counselors to connect with the school. So that is from misdemeanor to felony," said Kvistad.