Are school resource officers the answer to shootings?
By PMG reporters Seth Gordon, Gary Allen and Jim Redden
In the debate over what can be done to reduce school shootings, one answer is rarely mentioned — increasing the number of school resource officers.
As many as 20,000 SROs — as they are commonly called — patrol schools across the country, including in Newberg, and there are around 200 in Oregon.
Their potential effectiveness was best demonstrated at Reynolds High School on June 10, 2014. On that day, 15-year-old student Jared Padgett shot and killed 14-year-old student Emilio Hoffman and wounded PE teacher Todd Rispler in the boys' locker room. Rispler escaped and alerted two SROs assigned to the school, who charged Padgett and drove him back into a restroom, even though he was armed with an AR-15 assault-style rifle, nine magazines, a pistol and a knife. Padgett killed himself after other officers arrived and closed in on him.
The SROs' quick actions prevented the shooting from becoming much worse, as Padgett was near a gymnasium full of other students when they confronted him.
But, since the horrific Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, few have called for more SROs to be hired. Instead, controversial ideas have ranged from arming teachers to banning the sale of all semi-automatic rifles, not just assault-style rifles.
Newberg High School added an SRO more than two decades ago in concert with the Newberg-Dundee Police Department. The district funds about half of the salary for the position, with the NDPD picking up the remainder, said NDPD Chief Brian Casey.
The school's SRO position has been held for the past seven years by Officer Jeff Moreland, a 19-year veteran of police work, including the past 12 in Newberg, who previously spent eight years as a firefighter/EMT.
"He's deeply connected with our kids," said NHS Principal Kyle Laier. "He interacts with them well. He's a great resource to have in the building. I think SROs, overall, are (good) because they are a partnership that allows you to support kids in different ways."
While reacting to threats is certainly a part of the job, Moreland said that represents just a small portion of it, especially in light of the preventative and proactive approach that guides his work on a day-to-day basis.
"I didn't even have a vague idea of what it was like to be in this position and the relationship piece is bigger than I ever would have dreamed," he said. "You build relationships with these kids that are amazing. I've had kids write me letters saying that if it wasn't for me they would have killed themselves. I even walked one girl down the aisle and gave her away on her wedding day because her father had passed away from cancer. There are things like this that make it amazing and rewarding to an incredible extent."
Oftentimes, seeing SROs in the school are the first interaction kids have with police.
"I think another benefit of having those relationships is that they're not only seeing an officer as someone who is only going to give them a ticket or get them in trouble when they're making a mistake," Moreland said. "It's someone they can rely on, to go to for help and that we're caring human beings that are a resource any time they need something. …
"I've seen this shift from when I first started in this position when there were some (students) who were very cold and hard and really guarded around me. But they've relaxed and opened up just with my daily bantering. I'm pretty juvenile myself, so I think I fit in pretty well here."
Life as a target
Amid the troubling trend of school shootings, Moreland has personal experience with the risk of becoming a target that now seems inherent to being an SRO.
In 2016, his name was atop a list of targets then-student Jacob Hill assembled in anticipation of going on a shooting rampage at NHS. The list was compiled by Hill and several other NHS students, one of which ultimately thwarted Hill's plans by reporting his intentions to school officials.
"I was so grateful to the kids who spoke up," said the father of six. "The message we try to send to the kids is that if you see something, say something, no matter how big or how small. I think that spoke to the kids' value of people that were listed that were potentially going to be harmed. That one was pretty close to me because I was the first person that they were going to kill in that whole plan.
"In a way, I'm grateful for that because it really motivated the school district to realize that they needed to make some changes; all of these steps have been part of that. The superintendent was definitely making huge strides in school safety before that ever happened, but I think that really sent the message home to a lot of people in the community that it is a serious thing and could happen anywhere."
The school district has taken steps in recent years to improve security in the schools, including installing remotely locked doors and video monitors to screen people attempting to enter the buildings.
"It gives the school staff more control and knowledge of who is coming in and out of their building," Moreland said of NHS in particular. "Before, when all the doors were open, people were floating in and out, nobody was checking in at the front office and it was really hard to regulate. At least it creates a more controlled environment. It's an inconvenience to people in some ways, but I think in the overall picture it's a benefit and it helps us with the safety piece."
Moreland said he spends about 90 percent of his time at NHS, with the remainder of his time at the middle schools. He generally only travels to the district's five elementary schools when a student is having behavioral problems or there is a concern for the welfare of a child, such as cases of suspected abuse or students with attendance issues.
He also works with all of the schools on their lockdown procedures, holding regular lockdown drills and conferring with principals about safe practices.
Room to expand
Chief Casey posited that given that Newberg schools are growing in student population, creating a second SRO position could be a wise move.
"We think a district this size could use two officers," he said, adding however that the district is in the midst of cutbacks so it's unlikely the city would approach the district to ask for more money to fund a second officer.
"I don't think the school would object to a second school resource officer," Casey said. "They may object to paying for it, which may not necessarily be their responsibility. … The city and the police department are responsible for public safety in our community, which includes our students and our schools. It's nice that the school district helps us and it makes it easier for us to get someone out there, but we're not obligated to have a school resource officer by law. We do that because we think it's necessary."
Moreland confirmed Casey's sentiment.
"I've been asking for another one in this community for quite a few years now," he said, adding that a second SRO could cover the city's middle schools. "More SROs mean more contacts and impacts and relationships built amongst the students."
Momentum grows for more SROs
One organization that has called for hiring more SROs since the Florida shooting is the National Association of School Resource Officers, a voluntary membership that offers training and support services for them. The 5,000-member organization is strongly opposed to arming teachers. On Feb. 16, it called for additional funding to place professionally trained SROs in every school in the country.
"If we are truly interested in keeping students safe at school, we as a nation must fund professional SROs. There are unfortunately no perfect solutions to the school shooting problem. But SROs — who are sworn law enforcement officers with special training for working in schools — provide a layer of security that cannot be achieved by so-called 'armed guards,' who are not sworn officers. SROs build valuable, positive relationships with students, faculty and parents that often enable the SROs to obtain information on planned violent acts before they occur," said NASRO Executive Director Mo Canady.
NASRO estimates there are currently between 14,000 and 20,000 SROs in approximately 30 percent of all schools in the country, based on their membership count and limited federal studies. Some patrol more than one school in a district.
In a position statement on school-based policing, the Oregon School Resource Officer Association said SROs should be carefully selected and trained to work with students and understand the difference between a school discipline issue and a law enforcement issue.
"Cops become SRO's because they want to see less of our kids end up in the system — not more — and we labor daily in pursuit of this goal," the OSROA said on its website.
Suzanne Cohen, head of the Portland Association of Teachers and a graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, told the Portland Tribune that her organization isn't sure school districts should continue employing SROs.
"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 percent of students of color into the criminal justice system.
Moreland bristled at the argument that SROs contribute to a school-to-jail pipeline.
"Obviously, I do hold kids accountable," he said. "There are times that I arrest kids for crimes they commit -- they assault another person and the victim wants to pursue charges. I can't just say that it's not going to happen.
"So there is that, where we end up arresting juveniles and holding them accountable when they commit crimes. But there are lots of times we don't, where we end up working together collectively -- the school and myself and counselors and other resources in the community -- to build the best plan for this kid that we can to help them succeed and at the same time learn from their mistakes without having such severe consequences."
Laier was also skeptical of the argument that SROs funnel students into the judicial system.
"My experience here and at Oregon City with the SROs is that they're definitely preventative," he said. "The three that I've worked with have had really good relationships with students and I never really picked up on the feeling, and if any it was a small number of students, that it's a negative presence. Here in Newberg, if you watch (Moreland) up and down the halls with these kids, he knows most of them. His interactions are usually pretty playful and jovial. We have kids that will come and ask to speak to Moreland and it's because they know he's a resource. That 'school resource officer' part of it is true. He is a resource and somebody they can engage with and ask questions."
No increase in viable threats after shootings
Moreland said that, in general, Newberg schools didn't see an increase in viable threats after the March shooting in Parkland, Fla., which doesn't mean there wasn't increased anxiety in the schools.
"Any time we have an incident like that, with a lot of media coverage, (it) really has a lot of impact on everybody, it creates a lot of anxiety, stress and fear in a lot of people," he said, adding that much of the discourse is on social media like Facebook. "You'll get people who will maybe speak out more, so more things will maybe be reported and you get busier for some period of time. …
"The number of unfounded reports increase for sure, which we're grateful for. We'd rather have somebody say something and it be a false report or false alarm than the opposite of that."
Laier concurred: "There are all kinds of conversations going around, but the one conversation that I'm hearing more is that they're understanding there's a need for more unity in school and that they have to take care of each other. That's one of the factors involved in these things, that as students, their role in a lot of this is to make it a welcoming place among each other and doing things to connect with one another."
Ultimately, Laier said, exposure to SROs has a positive impact on students, even those that have gotten into some trouble.
"I've had kids who've made an error, they've done something, who've been at a point where (they say), 'I don't know what to do and am I in trouble or not?' and they can go to (Moreland) and have that conversation because they know him," Laier said. "So there's a level of trust there."
Expanding program in the future
Ultimately, Moreland said, adding more SROs could greatly address the issue of school violence.
"I would hope so. I believe it would definitely benefit," he said, adding that an attempted school shooting in Maryland on the day of this interview was thwarted by a SRO.
"I think just the presence (of SROs) itself has a lot of deterrence and also puts a lot of people at ease," he said. "I get students and staff on a pretty frequent basis thanking me for being here, how much they appreciate that I'm here or that they feel safe because I'm here. I think for the whole environment it's definitely beneficial to have more SROs."