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Portland schools not upgrading security
Increased security will be the new normal for many students across the country at the beginning of the next school year.
But not at Portland Public Schools.
At Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a gunman killed 17 in February, students will notice new fences, gates, surveillance cameras, ID requirements and armed school resource officers. Similar upgrades can be found in many of the nation's other schools, too, in reaction to the massacre.
Although Portland school district officials have been discussing the need for increased security, they have not yet arranged for more school resource officers or spent much of the $5 million set aside for safety improvements in the most recently approved bond measure.
According to interim PPS security head Brian Martinek, decisions have been hampered by budget restrictions and staff turnover at both the district and the Portland Police Bureau, which provides the school resource officers who patrol all public and private schools in Portland.
"The school superintendent is new, the police chief is new, departments in the district have been decimated by departures and the bureau is dealing with retirements," says Martinek, who formerly worked for the Portland Police Bureau, the Vancouver Police Department across the river and the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office.
Martinek himself is only halfway through a three-month contract with the district. He came on board after the former security chief, George Weatheroy, left earlier this year.
As part of his contract, Martinek is assessing the district's security needs and making recommendations for improvements. One of his top priorities is renegotiating the memorandum of understanding the district signed with the police bureau after eliminating its own police force in 2001 for budget reasons. Discussions have been hampered by the staff turnover, Martinek says.
Last year, the bureau had only 12 school resource officers assigned to patrol 170 public, private and charter schools within the city limits. They work four 10-hour days a week and must spend one day doing normal patrols because of the bureau's staffing shortage. Martinek would like to see more of them assigned to the district's schools, but does not know who would pay for them. The district does not currently reimburse the bureau for the officers who patrol during normal school hours. Although the Portland City Council increased the bureau's budget this year, it takes many months to screen, hire and train new officers. Such discussions probably cannot even begin until the new budget agreement is finalized.
Another consultant, New Dawn Security, has also conducted an assessment of the district's 95 buildings, most of which are schools. It is focusing on technologies needed to secure access, especially in the older schools, which tend to have more outside doors. Spending has yet to be authorized for most recommended improvements.
According to Martinek, the lack of visible progress is not due to a lack of concern for school safety. Both new PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero and Police Chief Danielle Outlaw are fully aware of how much has changed about school security needs, beginning with the shock of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and continuing through the Chardon High School (Ohio) and Sandy Hook Elementary School (Connecticut) shootings in 2012.
The Portland area is not immune to such tragedies. A student killed another student and wounded a teacher at Reynolds High School in 2014. He took his own life after being confronted by school resource officers and area police.
Martinek says the district is working to increase security in other ways. Much of the effort is focused on creating a culture of awareness of potential dangers and appropriate responses. That includes having the district's existing unarmed campus security agents report to the security department, not the principals of the schools where they serve. Additional signs are being installed at schools, making it more clear that all visitors must first report to the main offices.
Martinek says school resource officers have an important role to play, too, especially those operating under the most current best practices, which call for them to be specially trained to understand and deal with adolescents and to keep students out of the criminal justice system by deescalating confrontations, especially those from communities with historic poor relations with law enforcement.
The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), a national membership organization that supports police assigned to patrol schools, presented a two-day seminar on adolescent brain development to school resource officers in the region in March at the downtown Justice Center. It used training materials prepared by the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice.
"Trained resource officers understand the concept of restorative justice, of keeping students in school and not exposing them to the criminal justice system," Martinek says.
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