Resource officers learn insights into student mind
The day before millions of students walked out of their classes to protest gun violence last week, a Franklin High School student was arrested for bringing a handgun to school.
The 17-year-old student, who has not been identified because of his age, took a picture of the gun in his waistband in a classroom and sent it to another student, who reported it to school officials. They contacted the Portland police officers assigned to patrol the schools, who arrested the student at his home and seized a gun as evidence.
"Given recent events, I understand that it is alarming and shocking that one of our students would bring a gun into our school," Principal Juanita Valder wrote in an email to parents on Wednesday, the day of the national protest that also took place in Portland.
By coincidence, to better understand how such things can happen, more than a dozen law enforcement officials attended a two-day training seminar on adolescent mental health issues at the downtown Justice Center last Thursday and Friday. It was presented by the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), a national membership organization that supports police assigned to patrol schools, like those who arrested the Franklin High School student.
"The adolescent brain is not as fully developed as the adult brain. Adolescents do not always understand the consequences of their actions," explained NASRO training director Kerri Williams, citing research in the 89-page training manual prepared by the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice.
The Portland training — which had been scheduled long before the Franklin incident — was the first time the center had authorized the NASRO to use its materials. It was requested by Portland police Sgt. Hank Hays, a supervisor with the Youth Services Division where the bureau's SROs are housed.
"I saw it was going to be offered in an email from the association, which I belong to. I thought it would be valuable. All police are dealing with people with mental health issues, and students are no exception," Hays said.
Although some activists accuse SROs of arresting too many students for minor offenses, Hays said the Portland police are committed to the concept of "restorative justice." It includes keeping juveniles out of the justice system as much as possible — especially minorities who have historically been arrested at higher rates than whites.
Treating students differently
A student bringing a gun to school presents a clear and present danger that requires an immediate law enforcement response. But most of the training was intended to help the SROs better identify and understand other behaviors that may or may not require such a response.
As Williams explained, adolescents behave differently than adults in many situations, and disruptive behavior can be triggered by anything from family situations to stress caused by upcoming tests to the numerous mental health conditions described in the training manual. They include Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder and depression, which can lead to suicidal behavior.
"Some behaviors are school discipline problems and need to be resolved through the school discipline system. But some are mental health issues, and you need to know whether the student is receiving mental health services or needs to receive mental health services," said Williams, a former teacher.
As the training progressed, it was clear that most, if not all, of the SROs had experience dealing with students with mental health issues. Some talked about asking students if they had taken their medications before coming to school. Others recalled being asked to take hyperactive students on walks until they calm down. One said his responses were informed by a relative with an anxiety disorder. All agreed the goal is to de-escalate potential confrontations as much as possible.
Hays, a former SRO assigned to Franklin High School, praised the training. Although he said much of the research already has been shared with Portland police, some of it was new, and a number of SROs from outside Portland said they had not seen any of it formally presented before.
"We can all benefit by being reminded that young people don't always think like us," Hays said.
Afterward, Williams said the training seemed to have gone over well.
"Everybody was very receptive to the information, and I think they'll go back and implement it in their communities," Williams said.
According to Williams, the NASRO will offer the training to any law enforcement agency that agrees to host it, like the Portland police did. The organization estimates there are around 20,000 SROs in the United States. The Oregon Association of School Resource Officers estimates there are about 200 in the state.
As much as anything, the training shows the multiple roles that SROs play. The NASRO has developed the "triad" concept that divides their responsibilities into three areas: teacher, informal counselor and law enforcement.
According to Sgt. Jim Quackenbush with the Youth Services Division, all SROs are expected to fill those roles. In addition to the law enforcement duties, they are called upon to teach classes on such topics as drugs and traffic safety. But they most frequently find themselves talking to students about their lives, including their home situations, their relationships at school, and the problems they may be having with their studies.
"Being a School Resources Officer is the best way a police officer can make a difference in the life of a young person," Quackenbush said.
Those attending the training came from across the region.
Their agencies included the Beaverton Police Department, Clackamas County Sheriff's Office, Forest Grove Police Department, Gresham Police Department, Portland Police Bureau. and Washington County Sheriff`s Office. Two agencies from the State of Washington also were represented, the Thurston County Sheriff's Office and the Tukwila Police Department.
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