This story is possible because of Amplify, a community storytelling initiative of Pamplin Media Group and Metro, the regional government of greater Portland. Amplify supports three summer internships for high school journalists in the Portland metro region to cover important community issues. The program aims to elevate the voices of student journalists from historically underrepresented groups, such as communities of color, low-income residents and others. Pamplin Media Group editors oversee the interns, and Metro plays no role in the editorial process.
Nearly a month after Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero elected to disaffiliate with the Portland Police Bureau’s School Resource Officer program, the district’s academic administrators and students are re-envisioning schools’ approach to student resources, discipline and conflict resolution.
Guerrero announced last month, to the applause of many students and parents, that the district was severing ties with school resource officers provided and funded by the Portland Police Bureau. A school resource officer is a sworn, armed member of the police bureau, whose “beat” includes working in one or more schools in order to interact with students and to provide security.
The Portland City Council officially defunded the program 11 days later as part of the $15 million it slashed from the Police Bureau’s budget.
Now, as the city eyes where to reinvest dollars saved from eliminating the officers, called SROs, in the Portland area’s public school districts, members of the district’s community are re-engaging with conversations about social infrastructure and alternative justice that might better promote student security on school campuses.
The conversations surrounding SRO presence on campuses are not new. In 2018, as a component of a broader revision of the district and policy and conduct related to rule enforcement and student discipline, school board members visited each high school and heard testimony from approximately 600 students regarding the officers’ efficacy.
“Student response to the SROs was not unanimous, (but) there were huge differences based on race and ethnicity,” said board member Rita Moore. “The overwhelming majority of students of color indicated that having the SROs in the building made them very uncomfortable. There was a really clear message from students that the existing system with the SROs was not working for them.”
While other policy revisions to rule enforcement in district high schools are still in the drafting stage and subject to school board approval, the superintendent seized the moment of national reckoning against undue police presence to swiftly sever ties with the Portland Police Bureau’s SRO unit.
The school district never footed the bill for any of the SROs deployed to campuses, a point that board member Julia Brim-Edwards said is important to clarify. The program, which delegated one officer to each of the district’s nine high school campuses, was funded entirely by the city of Portland.
The Portland City Council already has rerouted $1 million of the roughly $1.9 million SRO program to a Black leadership fund for young adults under 25, including Black high schoolers in the Portland area. The remaining $900,000 in savings has been transferred to the city’s general fund.
“I can only speak for myself, but I would welcome a conversation with the city and our students about how we best support our students and ways we can address issues that in the past may have resulted in a phone call to 911 or to have a uniformed officer or school resource officer come,” Brim-Edwards said. “What are different ways for us to approach the situation besides calling the police?”
SRO role at odds with vision
According to Moore, the district never intended for SROs to play a role in matters of student discipline. They were not empowered to conduct in-school arrests—something for which other SROs across the country have come under fire—and they typically did not get involved with student suspensions or expulsions. Instead, SROs were tasked with developing positive officer-student relationships and, most regularly, responding to “emergent issues that were happening outside the school, in neighborhoods around the school,” Moore said.
Student testimony in late 2018 regarding SROs told a different story. For many students who offered their perspectives, the “bright line between student discipline and the SROs … was not always adhered to,” Moore said.
The sense among students that SROs more often acted as enforcers than as “resource officers” isn’t isolated to Portland campuses. Beaverton School District, which employs SROs in coordination with the Washington County, Hillsboro and Beaverton police departments, also has experienced its share of controversies related to officer presence in high schools.
Morgan Dunn, a recent Sunset High School graduate, recalls one incident in which SROs responded aggressively to a drug incident involving a female student, solidifying her perception that SROs injected traditional policing tactics into student discipline rather than promoting resolution or student wellness.
One officer “took (the student’s) hands and held them behind her back by her wrists and kind of shoved her out of the bathroom doorway and down the hallway,” Dunn said. “I would want to see more talking and more verbal communication, less shoving and the need for control from the officers.”
With only one part-time SRO per Portland high school campus, most students’ interactions with their SRO were minimal. But the image of an armed officer frequenting school hallways, even distantly, was enough to make some students uncomfortable, incoming Lincoln senior Amanda Ngo said.
For Ngo, “the connotations and stigma of a police officer in general, who is part of the system that does hurt the marginalized groups in this country,” were enough to make her permanently distrustful of Lincoln’s SRO, even without direct experiences, she said.
Incoming Jefferson junior Tae’viondrae Thomas, a member of the district student council, suggests that the part-time nature of SROs exacerbated student mistrust and wariness of the officers.
“SROs were still active duty patrolmen, so if they’re called in for official police business then they have to leave, they have no choice,” Thomas said. “If they were going to have SROs, they would have to be their own subdivision of the police force in order for them to be there on a regular basis so that the kids could get to know them, they could get to know the students and everyone would feel a lot more safe because they wouldn’t be called out all the time.”
Moore said the frequent absence of SROs is a byproduct of ongoing budget cuts within the Police Bureau for the last five years, which eliminated the force’s Youth Services Division. Previously, SROs were Youth Services Division officers who were trained to work with youth in a manner that more closely mirrored social work than law enforcement, with instruction in child development, conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques.
“The integrity of that program has been undermined for a while now because of budget cuts,” Moore said. “The idea of having a police officer in the school that is a known quantity is predicated on the idea that the officer is actually there and getting to know the students. Even if you think that the concept makes sense, the program was not able to really fulfill the concept.”
Thomas said that, with substantial revisions, including making SROs unarmed, restoring proper training and removing their other responsibilities, the program could perhaps be re-implemented in the future. For now, however, he points to campus security operations on PPS high school campuses as a preferred solution for student safety.
“We have to imagine a future without police in our schools,” Ngo said. Proposals to reform SRO units, she said, are “reforming a system that people don’t even trust. And who are the ones who are going to reform it?”
Focus on prevention
Thomas, Ngo and Dunn all agree that investment in mental health resources, including actively available school counselors, psychiatrists and psychologists, are needed alternatives to both SROs and instances where law enforcement is called to campus.
“I think we have to worry more about prevention than what we should do when (incidents) actually happen,” Ngo said.
The PPS school board already is directing its own financial resources toward mental health counselors, social workers, culturally specific community organizations and external restorative justice programs, Brim-Edwards said. The district’s efforts are buoyed by funding from the statewide Student Success Act, which will distribute $39 million to PPS for purposes such as elevating graduation rates, adapting systems and structures—including disciplinary policies—through a racial equity and social justice lens and advancing student-based supports to make PPS schools racially and culturally inclusive.
Social workers—employees trained specifically in family conflicts, student mental and psychological health, conflict resolution and sometimes sexual harassment and abuse—currently have minimal presence on PPS campuses. Each high school is equipped with only one social worker to accommodate the entire student body.
Along with community resources, averting punitive student discipline — particularly exclusionary discipline such as suspensions and expulsions—has become a high priority for PPS. Criticisms currently abound regarding the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a concept arguing that schools enable Black and Hispanic students’ entry into the criminal justice system through disproportionate suspensions and law enforcement interactions. ACLU Oregon has highlighted exclusionary discipline disparities between Black and white students in Oregon schools.
Across all PPS high schools, 9.8 percent of the Black student population — 103 Black students out of roughly 1,100 total — was subject to exclusionary discipline in the form of in-school suspensions, expulsions and out-of-school suspensions in the 2018-19 school year, according to annual student discipline reports released by the district. That compared with just 1.9 percent of the district’s 6,842 white high schoolers.
At individual PPS high schools, the disparity rises. At Cleveland High School in Southeast Portland, for example, over one-fifth of the school’s Black population — nine out of 43 Black students — experienced exclusionary discipline compared to just 1.1% of Cleveland’s white population. At Madison High School, where the Black population represents nearly one-sixth of the student body, 16.2% of Black students received exclusionary discipline compared with 4.2% of white students.
Thomas said the district’s controversial “search and seizure” policy, which sometimes has been carried out by SROs and is on the docket for removal in PPS’s draft changes to districtwide discipline, has enabled racial profiling and compounded disciplinary disparities between Black students and other racial and ethnic groups.
“Not all of the things that we do are major, like ‘call the police’ type stuff,” Thomas said. “A lot of minorities are more likely to get suspended and expelled because everyone thinks that we did something wrong. I think that (we need to) take the system that we have right now and adjust it to where we represent everybody and there are more students in the conversation of how to revise the system.”
Right now, PPS is considering how to expand restorative justice — a form of justice that revolves around understanding what went wrong in a student’s conduct and peacefully resolving issues through conversation — to more disciplinary incidents, said Moore and Brim-Edwards. The effort seeks to distance the district from law enforcement, including both ordinary officers and SROs, as a mechanism for conflict management, recognizing their adverse impacts on marginalized students.
“We want to make sure that any discipline is developmentally appropriate, trauma-informed and grounded in restorative justice principles,” Moore said.
As for a future without school resource officers? Ngo says her experience at Lincoln, the PPS high school with the most affluent and white population and one that rarely administers exclusionary discipline or deploys law enforcement, already demonstrates the potential for a cop-free environment.
“It’s not that hard to imagine practically, because that’s what’s happening here,” Ngo said.
Editor's note: Portland Tribune published this story on July 28, 2020.