How does Lake Oswego feel about cops in schools?
Do school resource officers make the community feel more safe or less safe? Is the program meeting its goals? And what exactly are those goals?
The feelings in the community regarding cops in schools are mixed.
At the Lake Oswego School Board work session Tuesday, Dec. 1, independent equity consultants John Lenssen and Tara Cooper presented the findings of closed interviews and listening sessions that were conducted as part of the Lake Oswego School District's evaluation of the school resource officer (SRO) program. Prompted by community requests, that evaluation began earlier this year.
The SRO program in the Lake Oswego School District started out as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program in the 1990s, with officers visiting elementary classrooms to educate against drug use, and became a long-standing program focused on building relationships with elementary school students.
From 2015 to 2017, the SRO program was paused due to retirements and limited staff at LOPD.
The program resumed with one officer in 2017, paid for by LOPD.
LOSD's second SRO was brought on in 2019, funded by the Lake Oswego Learning Levy passed by voters that same year.
This summer, when protests against police violence were at an all-time high in Lake Oswego and across the country, groups pushed for changes to police involvement in schools. The district passed an anti-racism resolution but held off on disbanding their SROs — unlike its Portland Public Schools neighbors — until it could go through a community engagement process.
The district sent out a survey to students, staff and families to gather input on the SRO program.
Questions included: "How safe do you feel with an SRO working at school?," "How would you rate your interaction with LOSD SROs?" and "What do you think is the purpose and function of SROs in LOSD?" Respondents also were asked what elements of the program they thought should be improved or removed.
The percentages of the demographic groups that responded to the survey correlated with LOSD demographics, with the exception of the gender identity demographics — 70% of respondents identified as women.
The main takeaway from the survey was that, overall and when disaggregated, feelings about the SRO program were mixed within groups surveyed.
The district also held closed listening sessions with students, staff, families, and individual interviews for those who wanted to maintain an added layer of anonymity. LOSD Director of Communications Mary Kay Larson said anyone who expressed interest was invited to a session.
Overall, Lenssen and Cooper found that the majority support having SROs in schools and a minority don't support it.
"Conversely, many of those in favor of the SRO program shared perceptions of 'added safety' that were based on feelings rather than data or weren't always realistic expectations for only two SRO officers responsible for the entire district," the report said.
Lenssen and Cooper shared the perspectives of each group — students, teachers and staff, administration, and families and community — and no one group was in full agreement on the program. Within all groups were concerns like, "If we have them why do they need to be armed?" and on the flipside, "SROs know CPR, first aid, medical issues and emergencies, evacuations and fires. They are there to help."
There were people in each group who did not support the program.
"There seems to be a perception that this was led by students, particularly students of color. ... What we learned is there are also staff who are uncomfortable," Cooper said.
Also represented in the listening sessions was that the lack of support for the program was not a reflection on the specific officers filling that role.
Cooper said the interviews and listening sessions were an important part of the community engagement process because it allowed the consultants to ask probing questions of the community.
"With such a complex issue, that was an incredibly important aspect of collecting data," she said.
She also said the fact that some wanted one-on-one interviews shows the complexity of the situation.
After the presentation, the board was given time for discussion and questions.
"What I'm struck with: For two years we didn't have an officer and I'm not sure what conversations were happening in our community around that. … What do we know that happened in those two years that we didn't have them, and did we miss something? Did something terrible happen? What does that data tell us?" said board member Kirsten Aird.
Board member John Wallin agreed.
"I had sort of the same thought. Not only what happened in the two years, but Liz (Hartman) and I were on the board when SROs were introduced and we did not have this discussion. We didn't have any discussion that I recall," Wallin said. "I'm so glad we're doing this now."
He asked whether the district has any statistics on what's happened in the time since resuming the program.
"Has there been a reduction of drug use in middle schools, have we had a reduction in mental health crises?" Wallin said.
Board member Liz Hartman added her own question.
"The question I keep coming back to is: What's the problem we're trying to solve? Is it drugs, is it safety, is it violence, is it psychological need? We need to define that," she said. "And I always come back to: what do the principals need, what are the resources they need?"
Superintendent Lora de la Cruz said further conversation is needed and the board will decide at a later meeting whether to continue, discontinue or redefine the program.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.