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State senator wants school resource officer accountability, better training/oversight

COURTESY PHOTO: CHRIS GORSEK - Sen. Chris Gorsek, D-TroutdaleAn elected leader from Troutdale is backing school resource officers at local schools — as long as they are properly trained and not abusing their powers — because the presence of law enforcement keeps students safe.

State Sen. Chris Gorsek, D-Troutdale, released a statement discussing SRO programs while the practice is under a microscope across the region. The Portland, Parkrose and David Douglas School Districts have all removed school resource officers; the Reynolds School District has no SROs during contract negotiations; and the Gresham High officer was reassigned to district-level duties at the behest of students.

"It is my opinion that in most cases completely removing SROs from schools is a mistake," said Gorsek, a former police officer and long-time educator of criminal justice at Mt. Hood Community College.

On the allegations swirling around the SRO at Gresham High School, if true, Gorsek is supportive of that officer being removed from the high school. Gresham High students from the newly formed Students Against Oppression have demonstrated and put out statements against the SRO program at their school.

"Our voices have continuously been silenced, and we have addressed that our school is not a safe place for students of color, numerous times, with multiple administrations and people in charge," said Stasia, a Gresham junior, to Oregon Public Broadcasting, a Pamplin Media Group news partner.

The students said they feel targeted, harassed, intimidated, discriminated against and profiled by the school resource officer.

During a Nov. 18 meeting Gresham Superintendent James Hiu announced, in consultation with the District Leadership team, principal, and Gresham Police Chief, the SRO at Gresham High would be reassigned to district-level responsibilities.

Gorsek said school resource officers need to build trust with the student body, and if unable to do so, that officer should not be working with the youths.

The Reynolds School District has been working on bringing back SROs to the middle and high schools once a contract issue has been resolved with the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office. As part of that work, the Reynolds District sent a survey to the students last fall.

"A majority of the BIPOC students supported having SROs back in their schools," Gorsek said.

Teachers and supervisors have also been frustrated with a lack of SROs, Gorsek added, as it leads to a delayed response when there is a problem that can't be handled by the teaching staff.

"The school shooting at Reynolds High School several years ago was quickly resolved because resource officers were on site and immediately addressed the threat," Gorsek said.

In 2014, a 15-year-old active shooter made his way into the high school on the second-to-last day of school with an AR-15, handgun and knife. A 14-year-old freshman was killed and a physical education teacher suffered non-life-threatening injuries. The shooter was driven back into a school bathroom by a responding officer before fatally shooting himself.

An analysis by the Multnomah County Office of Emergency Management showed having two officers on campus that morning prevented more deaths.

In 2007, a Gresham SRO ran into Springwater Trail High School after a student fired a high-powered rifle into two classrooms.

"Removing SROs is a mistake because when a business or school takes this road they are replacing highly trained police officers with less qualified security officers," Gorsek said.

To become a police officer in Oregon takes a 16-week, 400-hour training course for basic certification. "If you think police officers do not get enough training for trauma informed care and conflict resolution, imagine how little is done for security officers in terms of that kind of training," Gorsek said.

Gorsek said the way forward is holding police officers accountable for inappropriate behavior and removing individual officers from schools rather than do-away with the whole program.    

Discussions around school resource officers will likely occur during the next legislative session in Salem, with potential for statutory changes to oversight and training for the position. "We must come together as a state and have a meaningful discussion about the role of law enforcement and how to make that important branch of the criminal justice system work for all of our citizens," Gorsek said.

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