The Portland Public Schools board will wait a little while longer before signing a cost-sharing agreement with the Portland Police Bureau for nine School Resource Officers in its schools full time.
The Bureau has informally provided School Resource Officers to the district for about two decades for no cost to the district. But SROs are only scheduled to work in schools four days a week and even then are often called away to other staff-strapped events, like protests and emergencies.
The official Intergovernmental Agreement would formalize the arrangement, expand service to five days a week and allow the district — including students — to provide input on staffing decisions. The agreement will cost the district $364,000 this fiscal year, $1.2 million in 2019-2020, $1.2 million in 2020-21. In the final two years of the agreement (mid-2020 to mid-2023), the district will also pick up the tab on cost-of-living and retirement benefit increases.
Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero and Police Chief Danielle Outlaw — who both came from the San Francisco Bay Area to their high-profile Portland jobs around the same time — saw the need for the agreement during their first meeting a year ago.
But they will have to wait a little longer as the Portland school board punted a vote on the plan to allow for more student and community input.
Two high school students who spoke on the agreement to the board feared the increased police presence would disproportionately affect students of color and contribute to a crime-and-punishment culture in schools.
"Stationing police officers in schools will further contribute to an environment of fear and distrust," said Grant High School senior Amelia Ernst, calling school resource officers "detrimental to a healthy learning environment."
But Captain Tashia Hager, head of the Youth Services Division, said school resource officers are not like regular officers — and regular officers are not like the officers of yesteryear.
Over her 24-year career in the Portland Police Bureau, "our role in the community has changed dramatically," Hager told the board. Rather than law enforcement, she sees her role as helping those in need.
Hager said that out of the 2,500 calls that SROs took in schools last year, only 13 ended in arrest.
"The rest were dealt with in some other way," Hager said, noting that 48 were referred to a restorative justice coordinator before a police report was ever made.
But there were a total of 5,400 calls for service to a school address and the police captain did not say how many of the ones that a regular officer responded to ended in arrest. Hager and Acting Lieutenant James Quackenbush repeatedly stressed that SROs were special officers.
"It's not just something you walk into," Quackenbush said. "It's become a highly specialized position. You don't want just anybody walking the halls, interacting with students."
Hager suggested that under the severe staffing shortage at the bureau, some rank-and-file officers would not take the time to find an alternative solution — preferring instead to "make an arrest and referral and move on."
School board member Amy Kohnstamm said the irony was that an increase in police presence might actually improve student-police relations by being more reliable and allowing time for relationships to grow.
"Even though the presence will be greater, it will be much more embedded in the culture of the school," Kohnstamm said.
Cleveland High School senior Nick Paesler, the student representative on the school board, seemed skeptical. Paesler said no one he knew could name their school's SRO and the rare presence of a police car on campus made everyone nervous.
Board Chair Rita Moore asked for data on what sort of calls SROs respond to, but Hager said the police bureau's system isn't set up to easily access that type of information.
Board members Julia Brim-Edwards and Scott Bailey asked for additional language requiring parental consent or at least a trusted adult present when officers interview students. Hager said usually that will be fine but was reluctant to include it in the contract due to unforeseen circumstances, such as an immediate threat or a student who refuses the support.
"I'm not sure that we can get all the anticipated 'what ifs'" in the agreement, Hager said.
The school board is planning to debate and vote on the agreement at a future board meeting, currently set for Dec. 11. Check pps.net for board meeting agendas.
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