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In July 2021, the school board voted to not renew its contract with Forest Grove police for a school resource officer.

PMG FILE PHOTO - A member of the race crew helps the kids along during a fun run at Tom McCall Upper Elementary School in 2015.The Forest Grove School District is moving to contract with the Forest Grove Police Department to reinstate a school resource officer on campuses by next school year.

The summer before the 2021-22 school year, the school board voted not to renew its contract with the Forest Grove Police Department for a school resource officer.

Superintendent David Parker said the district is still calling police, but it's dealing with a wide range of officers on call instead of a primary school resource officer familiar with the district.

"The decision that was made last year was made with good intentions. However, that decision has led to students having more of the interactions that we believe you were trying to avoid," Parker said. "We are basically ensuring more of our kids are having negative experiences with the police by not having that (school resource) officer. This decision is creating a bigger problem."

The district of nearly 6,000 students surveyed 700 students for their thoughts about school resource officers. About eight in 10 said they think a school resource officer is important to have on campus, according to the survey results.

"I think some students don't like uniformed police officers because of what is shown all over social media, and that's police abusing their power. I believe that one way to improve that would be to not be fully uniformed but still recognizable as an officer," another student who agreed with having a school resource officer on campus said in the survey.

COURTESY PHOTO - David ParkerDespite the survey strongly favoring a school resource officer in Forest Grove schools, a few students said they don't want an officer back.

"The school is mostly made up of brown kids, and when you're black or Mexican, interactions with police can be scary when you see and hear about police brutality towards minorities," one student who didn't agree with having a school resource officer on campus said in the survey.

However, not having an officer assigned to the school district doesn't mean police aren't needed on campus at times. In fact, data suggests it's quite the opposite.

According to a presentation to the school board Monday, May 9, when the district did employ a school resource officer, the Forest Grove Police Department still received about 300 calls related to the Forest Grove School District each year: 338 calls in 2018-19, 331 calls in 2019-20 and 293 calls in 2020-21.

This year, without a school resource officer, there were 577 calls to the police department from the start of the school year until Feb. 14, 2022, roughly two-thirds through the school year, and at least 20 different officers have responded to those calls.

Forest Grove Police Department spokesperson Andrew Colasurdo said the absence of the school resource officer — commonly abbreviated as SRO in police parlance — "has certainly been felt by the patrol division."

"Without a SRO, school-related calls are dispatched to any available patrol officer. This is a significant additional workload to patrol officers which previously would have been handled by the SRO," Colasurdo said in an email. "The responding patrol officers also are not nearly as familiar with students and staff as the SRO would be. Without a SRO, communication with school staff, students, and parents can also be more challenging. Responding patrol officers have not developed the same relationships and open lines of communication as the SRO."

According to the presentation, 15% of the calls for service this school year were for suspicious behavior, traffic or an alarm, while 45% were for "extra patrol," which Neil Armstrong Middle School principal Julianna Kelly described as trespassing, a runaway student or a threat of violence.

"We can probably guess that the main difference here this year is we're making all our calls through the Washington County emergency line, where in the past we might have just contacted our (school resource officer) directly," Kelly told the board. "Having 20 or so adults working with our kids, we could see some differences in style. There was nothing wrong — our police showed up for us — but the ways that different police officers work with kids, we really saw some differences in that."

Kelly explained this school year how two similar threats of violence on social media were handled very differently by Forest Grove police. In one instance, police spoke with a student about not using such language. In a second instance, police read a student their Miranda rights and referred the student to juvenile court.

"Two different officers handled those situations pretty differently," Kelly said. "Having those discrepancies and having that consistency is something I've reflected on this year."

Tom McCall Upper Elementary School principal Sommer John recounted how a special education student ran away from campus earlier this year, and the school called police to ensure the student was safe and could be reunited with their family.

Police located the student first at a nearby cemetery, John said, and responded by physically restraining the student and placing them in a police car.

"The entire time, the student was screaming, crying and yelling, and that continued until parents arrived and were able to then work to de-escalate," John told the school board. "These officers responded in the way they're supposed to respond and followed protocols for interacting with adults in different situations. Not to say they did things really wrong, but how they responded was in no way trauma-informed, nor in the best interest of a child. It was traumatizing to watch."

While district staff have made their case, it's still up to the school board whether to approve a new contract with the Forest Grove Police Department.

Parker said he is open to forming a committee of school personnel and city residents to draw up a new job description and memorandum of understanding with the city for the school resource officer.

"We're going to put this in front of you again," Parker told the board. "I'm doing that because I feel this strongly about it. Having 20 different officers respond to our schools is not productive for us. We've got to have a better way of doing this."

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a quote from a Forest Grove Police Department spokesperson.

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