The last of the beat cops
In the wake of a deadly mass shooting at a school in Florida, the nation has erupted in spirited debates about gun control vs. the Second Amendment, mental health advocacy, arming teachers, banning weapons, student activism, marches and walkouts, and the issue of overreach vs. inaction by Congress and legislatures.
But one school security measure — one that already is in place — has remained outside the spotlight.
School resource officers: Sworn officers of a local police department whose "beat" includes the corridors and campuses of schools.
There are as many as 20,000 SROs, as they are commonly known, throughout the nation. Schools in Beaverton, Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood have SROs, as do most of the districts in metropolitan Portland.
But their profile remains low, especially in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., shooting.
Walking the beat
School resource officers just might be the last beat cop in urban America: The officer not stuck in a police cruiser, walking and talking, knowing the names of teachers and some of the students, knowing when an open door — one that's normally locked — might be a sign of trouble.
"You are the sheriff of your own small town," said Beaverton Police Officer Dan Cotton, who has done the job at Conestoga Middle and Southridge High schools.
Beaverton Officer Kelly Godinet — her "beat" is Sunset High School — said proximity to problems makes a difference. In the event of trouble, a patrol officer has to move toward a school. But an SRO might already be present.
"Because we're there, we can have a timely response to anything that seems suspicious," she said.
"It's not like being a patrol officer, where, honestly, what you're thinking all day is, 'Can I clear this call and move on to the next call?'" Cotton said. "When I interact with a student — unlike a patrol officer — I'm going to see that kid tomorrow. And the day after. And the day after…."
An average route for a criminal might be: Arrest, to jail, to indictment, to trial. But SROs in Washington County say the grand majority of their interactions are with counselors, social workers, mental health advocates, educators, the Department of Human Services and, of course, families.
"We don't pull out the cuffs very often," he said.
An average day at Tigard High School looks like this: Officer Brian Imus takes a one-hour meeting with school district leaders on school safety. He walks the halls for a while, with no other purpose than to be seen. "Get out into the halls and talk to 'em," the first-year SRO said. "I don't want to be just another officer when something stressful happens, and they don't know who I am."
Meanwhile, Officer Kristan Rinell — both are Tigard Police officers, both wear their full blue uniforms while on campus — gets a call from a vice principal first thing in the morning on three juveniles climbing into a vehicle. "Definitely not theirs," Rinell adds.
Is the right call to arrest the boys: handcuffs, fingerprints, the rest?
Rinell meets with school officials and they come up with another plan: They talk to the boys.
"One of them broke down in tears," she said. "Look, we know how stressful high school can be. Kids are stressed. They're depressed. There's stuff going on at home. This kid: he needed a much longer conversation than, 'Don't get in other people's cars.'"
At the end: No arrest. But hopefully a student's path changed. Maybe even a little.
"For kids in a bad situation, it just takes one adult to make a difference. I don't know if that person's going to be me," she said, shrugging. "But it might be."
The cliché about a school resource officer dates back to the 1980s and '90s, when it was considered a cush way to end a law enforcement career: The khaki slacks and polo shirts, the confiscated Camaros with DARE emblazoned on the side, and a couple of gym pep talks per year.
"The job that you used to retire into is now one you really, really want to do," said Jeremy Shaw, public information officer for Beaverton Police and a former SRO.
Today's SROs do more training for educators and students, as well. When she's not patrolling her school, Beaverton's Kelly Godinet offers classes on safety training for students, as well as a weeklong program each summer for students who are considering a career in law enforcement.
"I think the SROs tend to be younger today, and highly motivated," Cotton said. "To do a good job, there's a mindset of: If someone tries to harm my students? In my school? I'm gonna run toward that threat."
There's an "officer friendly" image that SROs have cultivated: They want to be seen by students and educators as a resource.
But several local SROs say the whole dynamic has changed since the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
"We are taking more questions about: how safe is our school?" Cotton said. "It's not unusual to see an uptick for a week or two weeks after a major event like that. But it's more lasting this time."
Beaverton police are receiving more reports of possible threats, Shaw said: Not because there has been an increase in violence, but because more people are keeping their eyes opening and reporting things that, any other day, they might have shrugged off.
"That's good," Shaw said. "'See something/say something.' We preach that, because it works."
Over in Tigard, Brian Imus said he's seen the same increase in concern. "We get calls from the community. People want to know: Do I wear my guns at school? Do we have training? People are worried."
Kristan Rinell is a five-year SRO vet who floats between Tigard High, Westside Christian School, and several other schools.
She said she parks her cruiser in front of her schools because she wants it to be seen. "I want schools to be safe, but I also want kids to feel safe," she said, with an accent on "feel."
"I did a presentation at Westside Christian just the other day. I can tell you: People are just scared."
Students throughout the region — and Oregon and the nation — walked out of school for 17 minutes on Wednesday, March 14, to honor and remember the 17 people killed one month earlier in Parkland. Before that occurred, the Tigard and Tualatin SROs took a planning meeting that included Ernie Brown, district superintendent, and Tigard Police Chief Kathy McAlpine.
"When you see the big wigs, you know they're taking this seriously," Rinell said. "To have the superintendent and the chiefs in the room? That's a big deal."
On March 13, the day before students walked out of their classes, a Franklin High School student in Portland was arrested for bringing a handgun to school.
Portland police Sgt. Jim Quackenbush said his bureau has seized four firearms from Portland-area students so far this year. Greg Larrison, an SRO at Canby High School, said he usually confiscates several firearms every year. Some are shotguns and rifles accidentally driven to the school after weekend hunting trips. But others were carried by students intending to do harm.
Neither of the Tigard SROs interviewed said they had ever confiscated a real gun from a student, but they had taken knives and airguns.
The Franklin High student allegedly took a picture of the gun in his waistband in a classroom and sent it to another student, who reported it to school officials. They contacted the Portland police officers assigned to patrol the schools, who arrested the student at his home and seized a gun as evidence.
Sgt. Kevin McDonald, SRO commander for Beaverton Police, said his team had stopped violent incidents before they occurred. He wouldn't go into detail — information involving juveniles usually isn't made public — but he said violent incidents have been stopped before they ever occurred in Beaverton.
"We've had kids 'on the bubble,'" Cotton agreed. That includes youths with plans to do violence who have amassed weapons. "Yeah. We've had a couple of those."
By coincidence, more than a dozen law enforcement officials attended a two-day training seminar on adolescent mental health issues at the downtown Justice Center in March. It was presented by the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), a national membership organization that supports police assigned to patrol schools.
The Portland training had been scheduled long before the Franklin incident. Participating agencies included Beaverton Police, the Washington County Sheriff's Office and Forest Grove Police.
Locally, officers said they have received much improved training on mental health issues, as compared to decades past. SROs also carry more tool designed to address an armed siege, including full battlefield medical kits.
Some of the new training assumes that armed attacks on schools have become a part of American life. Last summer, the Beaverton School District planned to tear down the old Hazeldale School on Southwest Farmington Road. That gave the Sheriff's Office the perfect venue for some real-world training in the art of busting down doors, carrying wounded, battlefield medicine and more. Hazeldale becomes a version of the FBI's famous Hogan's Alley: a real-world stage to practice the art and science of law enforcement.
Police from throughout the region, including Beaverton, Tigard and Tualatin, took part in the training. Behind the school, officers learned how to advance on a shooter who was behind cover, pick up a wounded man, and get him to safety, all while keeping themselves safe.
"A lot of this came from Virginia Tech," said Cpl. J.C. Crecelius of the Sheriff's Office. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va., was the scene of a devastating incident in 2007 in which a gunman stormed the campus, used bike chains and locks to secure doors, and eventually killed 32 people, wounded 17 others, and committed suicide. Officers on the scene didn't know how to handle the bike chains on the doors, Crecelius said, or how to carry wounded from a hot zone to a safe zone.
Training days like those at Hazeldale address those challenges before the need arrises.
Not everyone is a fan of the SRO system, which has been criticized around the nation for incarcerating too many young people — especially students of color.
Suzanne Cohen, head of the Portland Association of Teachers, said she believes in the goal of preventing all future school and other mass shootings, not just reducing their severity. But Cohen isn't sure that Portland Public Schools should continue employing any SROs at their schools. The district currently shares 12 SROs from the Portland Police Bureau with other school districts within the city limits.
"Schools shouldn't look like prisons. They should be welcoming places, especially to communities of color that have had bad experiences with law enforcement," she said, explaining that SROs are part of a "school-to-prison pipeline" that sends a disproportionate percentage of students of color into the criminal justice system.
John Weber, president of the Tigard-Tualatin Education Association — the teachers' union — is a fan of the SRO system. "We've seen first-hand the importance of SROs and the good relationship we have with the Tigard and Tualatin police," he said.
Sara Schmitt, president of the Beaverton Education Association, concurred.
She said her organization hasn't taken a vote on the national debate about arming teachers. "Personally, for me, it's a feeling of sadness that we've even gotten to this point in society," she said. "We're talking about safety protocols for kids as young as kindergartners. That's not good for kids and it's not good for educators."
And despite all the attention now on mass shootings, Schmitt added that far more students are affected by upheaval in their family, which can include homelessness and abuse. "For a lot of kids, schools are the safest place in their lives."
Ironically, as more people talk about school safety, the Tigard Police SRO program could be endangered by funding. The City of Tigard will ask voters in May for approval of a levy to pay for city services. Some of that money is earmarked for Tigard Police. If the measure fails, one of the programs that could go on the chopping block is the SRO team.
That would be a shame, said Kristan Rinell. She did five years as an SRO, moved to another assignment, and now is back.
She also rejects the notion of the school-to-prison pipeline, at least as far as her department handles SRO responsibilities. "Arresting kids is not the goal. Kids make mistakes. And that doesn't mean an arrest is the answer. It usually isn't."
Dan Cotton in Beaverton said he spends much more of his time protecting students from adult predators, including abusers.
"The only people we're looking to put in prison are adults hurting kids."
Reporter Jim Redden contributed to his article.