FONT & AUDIO
Can school resource officers prevent violence?
In the current debate about what can be done to reduce school shootings, one locally proven answer is conspicuously missing — increasing the number of armed and professionally trained School Resource Officers.
As many as 20,000 SROs — as they are commonly called — already patrol schools across the country, including many in the Portland area. There are around 200 in Oregon, with at least one in every Portland-area school district. And their potential effectiveness was 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 P.E. 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 military-style rifle, nine magazines, a pistol and a knife. Padgett killed himself after other officers arrived and closed in on him.
The SROs were two Multnomah County Sheriff's deputies working for the Reynolds School District during the school year. Nick Thompson and Kyle Harris prevented the shooting from being much worse with their quick and heroic actions. Padgett was near a gymnasium full of other students when they confronted him.
"Three minutes after the initial shots were fired, two School Resource Officers (SROs) entered the gymnasium building (where approximately 90 students were gathered in attendance for the first period of the day) and likely interrupted the shooter, who fled into the boy's bathroom located just outside the gym," reads the after-action report on the shooting prepared by the Multnomah County Office of Emergency Management.
"It was a tragedy, no doubt, but it could have been much worse," former Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel said when the report was presented to the board in late December 2016. She represented the district where the Troutdale area school is located.
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 semiautomatic rifles, not just so-called assault rifles. Although the 2018 Oregon Legislature is credited with passing the first new gun control law since the shooting, it had nothing to do with schools.
When the Portland Public Schools board adopted a resolution on gun violence on March 6, it did not say anything about SROs, either. In fact, the resolution diminished the actions of the SROs at Reynolds High School. It listed the school as one of several where shootings have occurred over the past two decades, and then said, "There is no evidence based on any credible research to suggest that adding guns into a school setting or arming teachers would prevent these acts of violence." Among other things, the resolution calls for banning the sale of all semiautomatic rifles.
Suzanne Cohen, the head of the Portland Association of Teachers, agrees. She believes the goal must be preventing all future school and other mass shootings, not just reducing their severity.
"It isn't right to live in fear at school," Cohen says.
In fact, although her organization has not taken a position, Cohen is not sure that PPS should continue employing any SROs at their schools. It currently shares 12 SROs from the Portland Police Bureau with other school districts within the city limits.
"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 says, explaining that SROs are part of a "school-to-prison pipeline" that sends a disproportionate percentage of students of color into the criminal justice system.
Don Bridges, president of the National Association of School Resource Officers, disputes that. He says properly selected and specially trained SROs are essential to preventing future school shootings.
"School Resource Officers are an extension of community policing into the schools. They build trust with students and teachers and work to prevent violence. An armed response is only the last resort," says Bridges, who is an SRO for the Baltimore County Police Department, which began formally working with the school district there more than 20 years ago.
Unintended consequences can be eliminated by better local policies on the selection and training of SROs, Bridges says.
Are more SROs the answer?
Not all SROs react as effectively as Thompson and Harris. The one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a former student killed 17 people and wounded 16 more, has been criticized for taking up a defensive position outside the school. His attorney says the SRO thought the shots came from outside the school and he was following proper protocols, however.
But Reynolds is not the only school where SROs have proven their value in such situations. On Dec. 14, 2015, a deputy patroling Arapahoe High School in suburban Denver stopped a heavily armed shooter who had killed one student before he could do any more harm. The assault was over in 80 seconds.
"His intent was evil, and his intent was to injure multiple people," Arapahoe County Sheriff Grayson Robinson said of assailant Karl Pierson, who rushed into the school with a bandolier of ammunition strapped to his chest. Pierson carried a machete, three Molotov cocktails and a pump-action shotgun that authorities said he bought days before to avenge a grudge he had against his debate coach.
Most interventions are not as dramatic. Portland police Sgt. Jim Quackenbush says his bureau's SRO has seized four firearms from Portland-area students so far this year. One Franklin High School student was arrested at his home after sending a picture of himself with a gun in a classroom to another student, who alerted authorities. No one was injured in any of the incidents.
"We were tipped off by students and staff," says Quackenbush, who is second in command of the Youth Services Division, where Portland's SROs are based.
Greg Larrison, an SRO at Canby High School, says he usually confiscates several firearms every year. Some are shotguns and rifles accidentally driven to the school after weekend hunting trips. But others were carried by students intending to do harm.
"I've had students come up to me and say, 'I know someone who's here and he's angry and I think he has a gun,'" says Larrison, who was a teacher before he became an SRO 14 years ago.
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 Executive Director Mo Canady.
Additional cost unknown
No one knows how many more SROs that would take because SROs are not required to register with any national database. Likewise, police departments are not required to report how many of their officers work as SROs. Nor are school systems required to report how many they use.
NASRO estimates there currently are 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.
Oregon also has a School Resource Officers association. It strongly rejects the notion that SROs participate in a "school-to-prison pipeline" by arresting students for petty offenses.
In a position statement on school-based policing, the Oregon School Resource Officers Association says 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 SROs 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 says on its website.
It was no accident that two SROs were on duty at Reynolds High School when the shooting started, according to Lt. Mark Shrake, the public information officer for the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office. The Reynolds School District first began contracting with the sheriff's office for SROs shortly after the school merged with the former Columbia High School in 1989. With around 3,000 students and hundreds of faculty members and other employees, it was and still is among the five largest high schools in the state.
"It's a city," says Shrake, who recalls that several early incidents at the new school prompted the district to think about increasing security.
Originally, the district only contracted for one SRO to be stationed at the school. It later increased the number to two, and then added an SRO to Reynolds Middle School and Walt Morey Middle School. The Corbett School District also contracts for an SRO that serves both its high school and middle school.
Before the Reynolds High School shooting, none of the SROs had ever responded to such a violent incident. But Shrake says they repeatedly have confiscated guns brought on to school properties over the years.
At the same time, Shrake and Larrison say SROs spend most of their time counseling students and educating them about the legal consequences of bad behavior when they are no longer minors.
"I tell a lot of students, things change when you turn 18. What you can get away with at 15, when you're 18, it's pay the fine or do the time," Larrison says.
Portland's staffing situation is different. The 12 SROs patrol 170 public, private and charter schools. They work four 10-hour days a week and must spend one day doing normal patrols because of the bureau's staffing shortage.
"That means they're only in the schools three days a week," Quackenbush says.
Despite her misgivings, Portland Association of Teachers President Cohen understands there are two sides to the issue.
"I've heard from students and teachers who want them out of their schools, and students and teachers who want them in," Cohen says.
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.