In the wake of growing concerns about both gun violence and police brutality, the presence of armed officers in schools has proven fiercely controversial. Those in favor of School Resource Officers (SROs) point to an increased sense of security that accompanies police presence, as well as the specialized SRO training that makes them more effective in dealing with youth than the average patrol officer. Those opposed to SROs emphasize the impacts of the school to prison pipeline and the long history of distrust between the police and marginalized groups, arguing that their presence distracts students and prevents them from feeling comfortable in what should be a safe learning environment.
This discourse reached a critical point on December 11, 2018, when the Portland Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education voted in favor of an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) with the Portland Police Bureau (PPB), regarding the presence of SROs in schools. The IGA was created in the hopes of building a formal agreement between PPS and PPB and clearly established the roles and responsibilities of each. Prior to the contract, there was no officially documented agreement between the two. The IGA outlines the roles of PPS and the PPB in their collaborative partnership, as they work together to “maintain a safe and secure learning environment for students, staff and families,” while “[addressing] student criminal misbehavior in alternative ways that avoid referral to the juvenile justice system.” The agreement delegates one SRO to each of the nine PPS high school clusters and two Sergeants to overlook the entire program, covering all PPS high schools and their respective feeder schools. PPS will pay the PPB $364,000 for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, and roughly $1.2 million for each of the next three years of their service.
In the contract, SROs are delegated three primary duties: serving “as a public safety officer, a mentor/informal counselor, and a guest lecturer/informal educator.” They are not allowed to participate in the enforcement of school policy or discipline unless safety is at risk. Additionally, SROs serve as law enforcement officials, and must comply with rights protected under the IV and V Amendments, requiring them to adhere to the “probable cause” standard in conducting searches and to observe students’ Miranda rights if they are being detained.
Beyond SRO responsibilities regarding school safety, the IGA emphasizes “the importance of building positive relationships between police officers and the youth they serve.” This means SROs are encouraged to participate in “positive student activities in the school community,” such as staff meetings and informal classroom instruction and attending after school activities such as dances, sports, and PTSA meetings. Captain Tashia Hager, the director of PPB’s Youth Services Division, explains that this increased interaction between the SROs and students, staff, and administrators is the biggest change initiated by the IGA. “We’ve had SROs in schools for a very long time and how that looks for the most part isn’t going to change,” she says.
Another element of the IGA that has drawn significant attention is the increase in the number of days that SROs work every week. Hager explains that this isn’t an especially significant change from SRO duty before the IGA, with each officer working four days every week instead of three, and the district having SROs in schools five days a week rather than four. This extra day is intended to allow the SROs to be more responsive to school needs and to provide them with more opportunities to build relationships with staff and students.
Although many view the new contract as positive, the vote drew heavy criticism from students and community members, who point out poor communication from the PPS Board, concerns about students feeling unsafe, and a lack of student voice in the matter.
Ahead of the vote, the PPS Board scheduled five student engagement sessions in response to earlier student feedback, hoping to educate students on the agreement and address concerns. These meetings have been condemned as inaccessible and structurally flawed by those opposed to the IGA, leading to a lack of awareness about the issue in PPS students. A survey taken of PPS students by Jefferson High School senior Isabel Mace-McLatchie showed that just over 23% of the 383 students surveyed had heard of the IGA, many just days before the vote occurred. Although all PPS schools are subject to the terms of the IGA, these meetings were only scheduled at four of the nine high school buildings, with many of them taking place during or directly after school hours. Aoi Mizushima, a parent of two Grant High School students, describes her experience at one of these engagement sessions. She attributes the small turnout to the lack of publicity about the meetings and explains that the few students in attendance had left school early and driven an hour across town to attend. Mizushima also says that the meeting’s structure was “highly flawed” because they were primarily led by SROs. “It shouldn’t be the police answering the question of whether or not they should have their jobs next year,” she points out.
Additionally, Mizushima shares the sentiment of many students that the PPS Board’s decision did not accurately represent the views of the community. “[It] felt to me like a complete disregard of student and community input when they came down to the vote,” she says, referring to the Board’s 4-1 decision in favor of the IGA. PPS Board member Paul Anthony explains that although he, and the rest of the Board, did not support the financial impact of the IGA, he believed that the benefits of having SROs outweigh the costs of the decision.
Despite this, Mizushima sees the lopsided vote as “a failure of the system.” She points to PPS Board members Nick Paesler and Julie Esparza Brown. Paesler, a Cleveland High School senior and the Board’s only student representative, is not given a vote in Board decisions. This means that despite his advocacy against the IGA, he was unable to influence the actual decision. Brown, the only member to vote against the agreement, is the only person of color on the Board. “For many of us, there’s fear when we see uniforms and police,” Brown said to The Portland Tribune. “I just want to acknowledge that.” Respondents to Mace-McLatchie’s survey echo this, the vast majority of students indicating that they do not agree with the IGA or the way that PPS carried out the vote. One anonymous Franklin High School freshman says, “I would feel incredibly uncomfortable knowing that there is someone in my school carrying a weapon, because the only difference between a police officer murdering a high school student and a school shooter murdering a high school student is that the police officer will get away with it.”
Teressa Raiford, a Black Lives Matter supporter and the founder of Don’t Shoot PDX, holds similar views. “[The students I work with are] afraid of the police,” she says. “For them, going to school and going to regular activities is a way to not worry about what they’ve seen on TV and what’s happening in the world…having the officers in the schools is a reminder.” Both Raiford and Mizushima emphasize their belief that a school should be a place for learning and that SROs distract from that purpose. For many of the students Raiford works with, the presence of police serves as a reintroduction of trauma, an experience she and Mizushima feel students should not have to deal with, especially in a school environment.
This trauma and distrust is rooted in a history of conflict that specifically targets people of color. While the deaths of those such as Alton Sterling and Michael Brown have gained national coverage, a history of police brutality and racial profiling is also present on a more local scale. In the past seven months, two black men have died at the hands of Portland Police officers, as well as a man who died in custody on November 22, 2018. However, it’s not just adults who are having these encounters. In 2015, Thai Gurule, a sophomore at Roosevelt High School, was tased by the police at a bus stop. Circuit Judge Diana Stuart ruled in favor of Gurule, finding that he had not struggled against the officers or resisted the arrest.
In discussing distrust of the PPB, Raiford refers to two audits published by the Independent Police Review (IPR) about the Bureau’s Gang Enforcement Team (GET). One of the audits discusses the GET practice of making a list of the “most active” gang members, following no particular PPB policy to compile names, nor notifying said gang members of their “most active” status. The audit notes that GET designations did not cover all criminal gang affiliates or collect data to show that it followed its own policies, leading to a lack of accountability in the system and no way to prove it actually worked. According to the report, PPB “cannot show that gang designations were focused on the most dangerous people,” and were unable to provide a list of designated names so that IPR could test effectiveness. The other audit reveals that GET has been targeting people of color in their traffic stops; black people were pulled over at a rate twice that of their demographic representation in a given neighborhood. The data also found that most GET stops happened in North, Northeast, and East Portland—areas with a higher black population. In response, PPB cited their Biased-Based Policing/Profiling Prohibited directive, a law that prohibits officers from discriminating against anyone on the basis of race and other factors. Raiford views the presence of SROs in schools as an extension of this profiling issue. “The whole fact that we have community policing partners implies that we have communities of criminals that need to be policed,” she says.
Ricardo Lujan, Policy Associate with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Oregon, argues that the IGA forms a direct connection with the school to prison pipeline. Lujan and ACLU Staff Attorney Leland Baxter-Neal wrote a letter to the PPS Board in opposition of the IGA on behalf of the ACLU. Lujan notes that armed officers in a learning environment “enforces an idea that certain misbehavior in a learning environment will be dealt with by punitive measures” rather than habilitative measures, reinforcing a dangerous practice that targets racial minorities. According to a national ACLU study, the presence of SROs does not actually make schools safer or reduce crime within them. In the same study, it was found that SROs believe their main purpose of presence is order, and school superintendents believe SRO’s main purpose of presence is for media. The most significant issue with the IGA, Lujan argues, is the allocation of resources. Instead of funding SROs in schools, the funding of counseling programs and healthcare, forms of restorative justice, would “foster a learning experience rather than a criminal experience,” says Lujan.
Although SROs receive specialized training that focuses on restorative justice over incarceration, this communal distrust of police has become so entrenched in the minds of students, staff, and community members that having armed and uniformed officers of any kind on campus is likely to inspire fear. This inspires some to call for the removal of SROs from PPS entirely. Hager explained why she doesn’t believe that this is a viable solution at the PPS Board meeting on December 11. “Some of those fears will be realized if we remove SROs from schools and we go back to just having our regular patrol come take radio calls,” she said. Anthony echoes this idea, stating that SROs are “so much better than the alternative” patrol officer. With more time and resources on hand, SROs are able to more accurately address each student’s needs, with the goal of keeping them out of the criminal justice system. In contrast, “street-beat” officers will try to resolve the matter as quickly as possible, paying less attention to potential ramifications. “If PPS were going to have to rely on our patrol officers for those calls, a lot of times the patrol officer would simply write the report and send it through, and technically that will count as an arrest and that kid will now be in the [juvenile justice] system,” Hager says.
In response to the criticism that everyone in PPB should undergo training in working with youth, Hager states that SRO training isn’t something you can give to every officer. She explains that SROs specializing in keeping students out of the juvenile justice system is just like any other specialized division of the PPB, such as the canine unit. “One person can’t be an expert in everything,” she says.
The emphasis on keeping youth out of the system presents another problem: the goal of an SRO is to make it so a student’s name never appears in the criminal system, making the success of the program difficult to evaluate. Additionally, very little data on SROs is accessible to the public. Hager notes that thirteen arrests were made last year in PPS schools by SROs during school hours, however, this data is not accessible publicly. The thirteen arrests came out of 5,000 calls made to the police from all schools covered by the PPB. However, to people like Mizushima and Lujan, that number seems quite high. Lujan calls into question school officials’ desire to call law enforcement on their students. Mizushima wants to know more about the circumstances of these arrests and of the youth restorative justice programs. She references a study set to be officially published in January by the ACLU which found that disabled students and students of color have been arrested at notably higher rates than other students.
Raiford points out another issue in the lack of SRO data: it is nearly impossible to expose flaws in the system and create accountability. “When you waive your right to investigation so that you can participate in mediation, then you’re basically stating that there’s no problem that can’t be taken care of by the agency,” she says, explaining that filing complaints creates a tangible record that something has happened, while SRO restorative justice programs do not.
Although the IGA will not fundamentally alter the day-to-day lives of PPS students, the collaboration between the two entities is unsettling for many. A large portion of students and community members feel that the PPS Board of Education has failed to represent them, and that the increased presence of SROs in schools will add to feelings of discomfort rather than promoting a feeling of safety. In response to the Board’s vote, students from a number of PPS high schools have organized to advocate against the IGA. Lujan finds the “unified approach that students have already taken” inspiring, and encourages all concerned about the IGA to “be as civically engaged as possible.” The date that the Portland City Council will vote on the agreement is still unclear, but the students hope they can work together to prevent it from passing. Although the safety of students is the main priority from all sides, the impacts of the IGA are yet to be accepted as positive by many in the PPS community.
Jefferson High School senior Sophia Lucas and her younger sister hold signs advocating against the new School Resource Officer Intergovernmental Agreement. Lucas has been one of the leading student voices in opposition to the IGA. Photo by: Micheal Hull