Beaverton School District has its own police department - and Hillsboro is next
Two Washington County school districts are going the extra mile to ensure student safety.
This school year, the Hillsboro School District launched its very own police department, the Hillsboro Department of Public Safety.
It's a real police force, with a chief and badges and even a squad car. But the program is far from unique. Beaverton School District has had its own police department for close to a decade, and its new chief of police said he can't imagine doing things any differently.
Under Oregon law, school districts are allowed to form their own law enforcement agencies. It's more commonly seen at large public universities, such as the University of Oregon, but a handful of Oregon schools have taken advantage of the law, with a sworn police chief as the head of district security.
Rick Puente is the only sworn officer on the Beaverton School District police force, but he oversees a team of security staff and campus monitors.
As a cop, Puente is still able to make arrests and write tickets. He helps conduct internal investigations inside the school district, and responds to threats made against schools.
Puente, Beaverton School District's director of public safety, is the former president of the Oregon Peace Officers Association. He spent 15 years as a Woodburn Police detective before coming to Beaverton as chief of police six months ago.
"School safety is bigger than a fire drill, an earthquake drill, or a bus drill," he said. "When evil wants to do evil, evil will do evil. It is how well we are trained and prepared as a school district, as administrators, as staff, as students, that will determine how much damage evil does."
As the director of public safety, his job covers it all, he said.
"It's a bit like drinking water from a firehose," he said. "Safety encompasses every aspect of a school district. From staff and students, to maintenance, transportation, personnel, facilities. We play a part in every aspect of it."
All law enforcement agencies must be certified through the state's Department of Public Safety Standards and Training. Eriks Gabliks, director of DPSST, said policing in schools presents special challenges for law enforcement. In many ways, he said, it makes sense for schools to employ their own police.
School districts are like cities within cities, Gabliks said.
"They have dozens of buildings, with thousands of people. They get great service from their city police department, but they can't be on campus all the time, and they don't know the insides and outsides of the district like employees do. Especially when you're talking about Beaverton and Hillsboro, two very large districts. They have thousands of staff and students and hundreds of thousands of square feet of buildings to pay attention to."
The Beaverton School District has had the model in place for years. Portland had a similar program for years, Gabliks said, but now contracts with Portland Police Department directly on security issues.
Having district security be overseen by a sworn police officer has its advantages, Puente said. He's a liaison between the district and local police.
"It allows for better communication all around." Puente said. "There is a collaboration when it comes to safety. As sworn officers, we can retain our relationships with law enforcement and first responders."
Gabliks said he has had several conversations with school districts about starting police agencies in the past few years. The Salem-Keizer School District, the second largest school district in the state, is considering a similar model, but Gabliks stressed the program likely wouldn't work everywhere.
"Every community is looking at ensuring the safety of their students, staff and guests," Gabliks said. "I think every school district is looking at this as a possibility, and they have been for years, but I don't think you'll find a 'one size fits all' approach to school safety."
Forming law enforcement agencies from scratch doesn't come without risk. School districts must ask hard questions about whether they want to have sworn police on the district payroll, Gabliks said.
School district takes on increased liability when officers make mistakes.
"When an officer takes action, but makes a false arrest, that's now managed by the district," Gabliks said. "They become a school employee. That also means that when you are looking at the school's budget you'll have to pay not only for teacher salaries, and sports equipment, but guns? Bullets? Those are things that you'd think a district would traditionally worry about having."
Despite the challenges, Puente said he expects more and more school districts to adopt this model of policing over the next few years.
"They are realizing that this position has the ability to bridge the gaps that have not been bridged before," Puente said. "When you build relationships, you build trust. You build communication. And when it comes to safety, you all want to be on the same page."