Safety Within Portland Public Schools

Kaben Humphery-Butler (left) and Osa Esene (Right), two of Franklin High School’s on-site security guards. They work to maintain campus safety daily and act as support for students. Photo by Isabella Smejtek

Safety within schools is a constant concern all over the United States, but has been of increasing prominence since the Columbine massacre in 1999 and the rise of school shootings in the last decade.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, especially during the 2018-2019 school year, there were many incidents within the Franklin community concerning shooting threats and physical violence on or near campus. These affected a lot of students, but I remember personally during my freshman year the struggle was significant. I was unable to focus at school, stressed to the point of panic attacks. Announcements about threats written in bathroom stalls were only too common. It was increasingly challenging for me to come to school as I had constant anxiety around school shootings. Talking to other students during that time, I learned that I was not the only one experiencing these feelings of anxiety. 

Returning to in person school after being online for the last year has brought up memories of those feelings of anxiety, as well as questions regarding current safety precautions within Portland Public Schools, but more specifically, at Franklin.

While health safety due to COVID-19 has been predominant since 2020, there remain numerous safety concerns that persist within schools, ranging from fights in the hallways, to fires and earthquakes, to shootings and threats. Safety protocols in terms of natural disasters are widely known within school buildings, as almost every student has evacuated their building and lined up outside on the field or street, or has practiced what to do in the event of an earthquake. While these drills are regularly practiced, few students understand or have any knowledge of the protocol that activates when threats of violence or violence itself occurs. 

In the event that a safety concern such as a shooting threat or an on-campus threat were to occur, the first people to respond are the campus security guards. Franklin’s lead security guard Osa Esene described the roles security guards play in not only the day-to-day wellbeing of the students, but also in the overall safety of the school. Every day, school security patrols the hallways, making sure students are getting to class on time, but more importantly watching for signs of conflict and to be on-call in case of an emergency. If an emergency, threat of violence, or other safety concern occurs, the main role of security guards is to control the situation. 

Osa touched on this, saying; “The first plan is to keep it under the table as much as possible. Trust me, you let 80 people know there’s a gun on campus, we’re going to have the whole campus freaking out. So we need to keep it stable as much as possible, and obviously make sure everybody’s safe in the process…we attack the issue on a lower scale, and then keep everybody safe.” This is something that was emphasized by Vice Principal Scott Burns. Similar to Osa,  Burns says that the importance of the protocols in place, especially in relation to severe safety threats, is to contain the situation and try to resolve it internally. This ensures both that the rest of the school remains calm, as Osa said, and resorts to using the district and Portland Police only if the situation cannot be contained. 

In the case of a written threat or rumor spreading around the school, says Osa, the first thing that both security and administrators do is try to identify where the threat is coming from, if it’s targeted, and to communicate this with district officials. Along with this, as lead security guard, Osa communicates with the district daily to ensure full communication regarding safety concerns, as well as identifying any protocols or responses that need to be adjusted for the future. 

Franklin’s security guards are unarmed, and they are encouraged to build rapport with students in order to further create a safe community. Osa shared the reason he became a security guard to begin with: “I didn’t look at it as becoming a security guard, I was more interested in working with kids. You got to be flexible in the role of security, but also as a mentor, big brother, dad, uncle, best friend. You wear a lot of different hats.” Osa extends his work at Franklin as the men’s varsity basketball coach.

Vice Principal Burns is the administrator overseeing safety, health, and security in the building. He also works with the emergency response team, which includes school security, regarding evacuation, emergency responses, lockout, and lockdown plans. Although safety protocols cannot be discussed in detail for safety purposes, “It’s also important…to inform everybody about…those protocols,” Burns says. In the event of a lockdown, the entire district follows similar protocol: locks, lights, and out of sight; however, this is conducted on a teacher by teacher basis, as every room requires different responses depending on its layout. 

While individual schools have immediate protocols they follow, the district also does preventative work to try to broadly limit the threat to the safety of students. Catherine Burkhardt, Security Specialist for PPS, runs volunteer background checks and monitors access control requests and emails. As well as this, she is cross trained in multiple security and operational roles, along with managing alarms and coordinating with first responders. Her role ensures the people who have access to a school building have cleared background checks, and she stays updated on current safety issues occurring within the district.

In the event that a non-contained emergency occurs, members of the Portland Police Bureau are contacted, and first responders will be sent to the site to help manage and contain the situation. 

There is always room to improve, something that was acknowledged by everyone interviewed; however,  Burkhardt noted that in the last three years, PPS security services have doubled their number of office staff as well as employing more Campus Safety Associates, so there is now a broader security coverage than ever. 

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