Gresham Police: Youth connections
Last fall, the Gresham Police Department received reports of a rash of neighborhood thefts, with items being taken from porches and garages.
There was video of two young boys stealing the items, and a report was filed by a patrol officer. Normally the situation would have ended with the kids being referred to juvenile court with pending charges.
But in Gresham, there is another option thanks to a team of officers dedicated to connecting with youths.
Officer Gavin Sasser, who serves as the school resource officer at Barlow High School, was able to step in and spend the time necessary to go beyond a punitive response.
"We can change behaviors rather than punish them," Sasser said.
He connected with parents he knew in the neighborhood, and figured out who the boys were.
"We worked with the family and kids to return the stolen items and arrange apologies with neighbors," Sasser said. "I had the time to work with the youth and victims to right the situation."
Gresham has school resource officers stationed at high schools throughout the community — Gresham, Barlow and Centennial. Those officers provide an in-person contact for students and a resource for schools throughout the district. They are armed, but do not play a role in school discipline. The SRO program is funded by both the school districts and police department.
"The program is about education and mentorship first, law enforcement second," said Lieutenant John Rasmussen, who helms the program and served as the Barlow SRO in 2007.
Officers like Sasser spend their days at the schools meeting with kids, teaching lessons, and helping wherever they are needed. Though the most crucial service is being on-hand for outbreaks of violence like a potential school shooting, the program also serves as a response for any police situation involving youth.
"The guiding principal is to build relationships with our community," Rasmussen said.
The SRO program began in the mid-1990s through Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) programs taught at Gresham and Centennial high schools. But in the wake of the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, a nationwide push developed to station officers within individual schools.
In Gresham, the resource officers spend most of their time at the high schools, but are also on-call to help out at the feeder middle and elementary schools. They respond to any police activity involving youths, with other officers calling them in to work with the kids.
That aspect of the job was crucial during the pandemic, when schools were shuttered to in-person learning. During that time the Gresham SROs served more as case workers, arriving at situations across the region to provide support and expertise.
Recently, Sasser responded to an incident where a youth was experiencing a mental health crisis. The young person had injured a pet during the episode, and emergency responders were having difficulty calming him down. The child's parent had contacted his school for help, and the behavioral health teacher had reached out to 911 as well.
Sasser heard the call, and responded to provide assistance. Because he had connected with the child at school, he was able to approach and calm him down.
"I gave him a sticker, sat with him, and just talked," Sasser said. "I was able to show up and have a positive interaction because of the time we had spent in school."
"I made sure he knew everyone just wanted to help," Sasser added.
That ability to work with youths is invaluable to the Gresham Department.
"Our SROs embody what the community views as de-escalation," Rasmussen said. "With all their training, and by being present at the schools, they know how to connect with little ones."
The headline grabbers for school resource officers are when tragedy strikes, like the school shooting that took place at Reynolds High in 2014.
A 15-year-old student shot and killed a 14-year-old boy and wounded a PE teacher in the boys' locker room in the gymnasium building. But it could have been worse, according to analysis by the Multnomah County Office of Emergency Management. That report showed having two officers on campus that morning prevented more deaths.
During the shooting, the SROs ran to the gym, where, the report says, approximately 90 other students were gathered just a few doors away from the shooting scene. The shooter planned to do more harm — armed with a rifle, pistol, nine ammunition magazines and a large knife.
According to the report, the officers interrupted the shooter, forcing him back into the boys bathroom. The shooter later killed himself with the rifle he had stolen from his older brother.
"The fact that there were School Resource Officers on site very much diminished the amount of time" involved in the incident, Emergency Management Director Chris Voss said to the Multnomah County Commission. "The shooter fled, and it was not until a few minutes later a larger number of officers were able to enter the school."
In 2007, a Gresham SRO ran into Springwater Trail High School after a student fired a high-powered rifle into two classrooms. Rasmussen said while he was working in the schools, there were multiple moments where students came under threat — mentioning the discovery of "hit lists," guns on campus, assaults and threats of shootings.
And while SROs play a big role during those horrific tragedies, the Gresham Department praises the program for filling in more gaps.
The officers play a role in disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline by offering alternatives to expulsion.
"No tolerance exclusionary practices are very harmful," Rasmussen said. "The school-to-prison pipeline is often blamed on police, but often its officers interacted with juveniles who were expelled and got into trouble."
School resource officers can work with administrations to offer alternative methods than immediate expulsion. They can communicate with the kids, work with parents and connect families with services through nonprofit partners.
"Our officers help the schools find the most equitable ways to deal with youth," Rasmussen said.
And not just any officer gets assigned to the SRO team — those who want to be stationed in a high school have to apply for the role.
"The SRO unit is a group of professionals as dedicated as any other team we have," said Interim Chief Claudio Grandjean.
The officers normally serve for four years, and receive lots of special training, including work around implicit bias, trauma, and specific skills around youth interactions.
Sasser joined the team because he has always been passionate about working with youth. In high school, he was part of a church group to mentor younger students, and served as a Gresham Police cadet partly because it allowed him to continue connecting with members of the community.
Many kids across Gresham have poor perceptions of police, often stemming from negative interactions in the past.
"Over the course of being kind and gentle and available, we can change that perception and have them understand they can come to me if they have been victimized," Sasser said. "As an SRO, I can bring humanity to the uniform."
Going strong in Gresham
Across Multnomah County, school resource officer programs are being eliminated.
In Portland, the Youth Services Division was eliminated in the 2020/21 budget, a decision prompted by Portland Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero. The state's largest school district, which didn't pay for the police officers, will instead increase spending on social workers, counselors and other support for students.
The decision to defund the program had been pushed by Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty. The Portland program had 11 armed police officers patrol the halls of the city's high schools.
"If you remove SROs from schools, you remove a big positive interaction between youth and law enforcement," Interim Chief Grandjean said.
The situation at Reynolds High is nebulous as well. The Multnomah County Sheriff's Office contract with the school district lapsed last year during the pandemic, and deputies cannot serve in schools without a new one in place.
Both parties are negotiating a new contract, but it is unclear what that will look like. Gresham officers are available to respond to Reynolds during emergencies, but do not serve fulltime within the district.
Rasmussen said school resource officers are achieving what 21st Century Policing guidelines strive to implement — positive interactions with the community.
The Gresham SROs help sixth graders learn to open their lockers for the first time. During a Barlow football game, Sasser used his training to save a man who had collapsed, providing first aid and using an automated external defibrillator to keep him alive until the ambulance could arrive. SROs also respond to accidents involving children — one recent call at midnight had an SRO identify teen victims involved in a car crash.
They also make a difference with truancy. One SRO connected with a teen parent who had been out of school for a year, driving her to class and signing documents that her parents' were unable to deal with.
"The length our officers will go to work with kids — when they fall through the cracks — the SROs get involved and make a difference," Rasmussen said. "Our SROs look at kids with hope."
And unlike Portland, Gresham has no plans on getting rid of the program anytime soon. Instead, they want to ensure it continues to serve local youth. That could involve changes in the future — the Gresham Department said it would be willing to alter the program in the future to match community desires and meet best practices.
"We see the value in this program and want to keep it going," Grandjean said.
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