After high drama, Portland school board votes for police agreement
This story has been updated.
Jefferson High School senior Sarah Steele watched in disbelief as the Portland Public Schools board of directors took another vote on Resolution 5771. The new vote would ensure that, despite vocal protests, the school district would enter into a cost-sharing agreement with the Portland Police Bureau for nine full-time school resource officers.
The Jefferson High School student body co-president said afterwards that the decision obliterated her faith that the school board took students seriously.
"I just could not believe that they would hear our voices and just full-on deny it," Steele said. The Jefferson High School co-presidents, Steele and Isabel Mace-McLatchie, had gotten a standing ovation from the audience in the crowded board room less than an hour before, after pleading with the board to delay the vote.
The highly emotional discussion in the normally staid board room ended with an unusual re-vote on the agreement after it failed to gain the four votes necessary for passage. A motion to delay the vote for a few months — in accordance with student demands and an online petition with more than 700 signatures — received two yes votes, from board members Scott Bailey and Amy Kohnstamm.
Bailey ended up being the swing vote to ensure the agreement would go through Tuesday evening.
The vote ended a process begun more than a year ago but which took many community members by surprise. Though many opposed various aspects of the agreement, several also said in testimony and in interviews with the Tribune that they did not necessarily oppose the terms of the agreement but were very upset that the process lacked community input.
The district hastily set up student meetings after the board's student representative Nick Paisler successfully lobbied for a two-week delay of the vote, originally scheduled for Nov. 27.
See previous reporting:
Portland school board delays vote on police cost-sharing agreement
Pupils respond to proposed police, public school contract
The student meetings were not well attended. Steele and Mace-McLatchie criticized the meetings for being difficult to attend. They said that social media and their efforts at a student survey had done more in recent days to involve the public than the school district had since its first public meeting on the proposal: a little-advertised work session on Oct. 9. (The agreement is retroactive to Sept. 12.)
In the end, the only person to vote no on the agreement was also the board's only person of color. Vice Chair Julie Esparza Brown, who led the meeting in the absence of board Chair Rita Moore, said that both personally and in her work as a university researcher she has seen students of color and those with disabilities disproportionately targeted by police.
"For many of us, there's fear when we see uniforms and police," Brown said. "I just want to acknowledge that."
Proponents of the resolution tried to make the case that school resource officers are a special class of police personnel and could protect students when there are emergencies — both from criminals and from other cops.
"We do have incidences," board director Julia Brim-Edwards said, "and it's a question of who is going to arrive and who is best prepared to do that."
Brim-Edwards also called the cost-sharing portion of the agreement "a failure of political leadership at the city level." The five-year agreement could cost the district more than $5.4 million in all.
Without it, the captain of the bureau's Youth Services Division told the board, the school resource officer program would likely be cut to save money.
In a shocking and emotional prepared statement, school board member Paul Anthony, who represents the northern region of the district, attempted to reframe the debate by citing examples of students as victims of crime rather than suspects of crime.
"What do you think restorative justice — and, yes, we need restorative justice — is going to offer a little boy who is being molested?" Anthony asked rhetorically, referring to a program that brings victims and perpetrators together in sharing circles as an alternative to a crime-and-punishment model.
Anthony pointed to the frequency of child sex trafficking and child abuse. He said that in the "failing system" authorities from the Department of Human Services or the Portland Police Bureau frequently either do not respond to or do not take seriously the concerns of school staff.
"A uniform talking to a uniform" seems to be "the only thing that people in our bureaucracies listen to," Anthony said, adding his belief that beat cops' "engrained habitual response" is to escalate situations. "We have to have SROs between our staff and our beat officers."
He recalled that during a brief period when the SRO program was canceled, police responded to a call to a Jefferson High School boys basketball game with numerous patrol cars: "'Cause, you know, black kids and shot guns are a real good mix."
Many students and other audience members exclaimed in outrage at that line in particular. Anthony clarified after the meeting that he was referring to the danger that black people — and young people in general — can face from armed police.
Despite the political drama and high emotions, what exactly SROs do in Portland schools remained an open question. The agreement calls for data collection and annual reporting to reveal what sorts of calls SROs respond to and who they tend to take in for custodial interviews.
Leland Baxter-Neal, a staff attorney for ACLU Oregon, testified that scientific studies did not support the idea that officers in schools provided more safety.
"Spending money on law enforcement officers does not provide a meaningful reduction in risk," Baxter-Neal said. "We respectfully request that you postpone this vote and listen to these students."
Board members Amy Kohnstamm and Bailey originally abstained from voting, leaving just three yes votes and a no vote from Brown. After Brim-Edwards asked for — and a majority of the board agreed to — a revote, Bailey switched his vote to yes. Board chair Moore was absent and the board's student representative — who voted no — has only an advisory vote.
Critics in the audience — such as former school board member Steve Buel — claimed the vote was illegal. The district's Interim General Counsel Liz Large approved the re-vote process.
In any event, disappointed audience members vowed that they wouldn't soon forget the board's action.
"It seems quite unethical," said Harriet Tubman Middle School parent Brooke Herout. "I think it was a shameful vote. I think it was cowardly."
"They just upset so many dedicated high school students," Jefferson senior Isaaiah Baltzell said.
Steele and Baltzell said they intend to broadly disseminate the results of the meeting and to hold the board accountable.
One venue for that may be the quarterly meetings called for in the agreement. A new PPS committee, including one student delegate, and the Portland Police Bureau will formally discuss how the program is going for the first time in the two decades that SROs have been in Portland schools. The first report from the new committee is expected in March.
UPDATE (12/12/18): The co-president with Sarah Steele of Jefferson High School student body was misidentified. It is Isabel Mace-McLatchie. This version also corrects the number of yes votes the amendment to delay received.
Jefferson High School senior Sarah Steele finishes her public testimony calling for a delay of the vote on a PPS-Portland Police coordinating agreement and gets a standing ovation from the crowd. #ppsboard pic.twitter.com/jofP0Lb9zo— Shasta Kearns Moore (@ShastaKM) December 12, 2018