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Portland Took Cops Out of Schools in 2020. Now It May Put Them Back.

Changing public perceptions that equate policing with safety is challenging, especially in the wake of school shootings.

A school resource officer from the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department checks to make sure side doors are locked at Falcon Bluffs Middle School in Littleton, Colorado, on May 7, 2014.

While public schools have increasingly taken center stage in the far right’s quest to take over school boards and fight the boogeyman of Critical Race Theory, LGBTQ2S+ existence, and “woke” policies and books, they have also been a key site of struggle for prison-industrial complex (PIC) abolition over the presence of police in the form of School Resource Officers (SROs).

Abolitionists face a major challenge when it comes to changing public perceptions that equate policing with safety, especially when it involves children and school shootings.

If you turn on the nightly news in Portland, Oregon, you are likely to see a story about yet another shooting. According to data from the Strategic Services Division of the Portland Police Bureau (PPB), Portland saw a total of 1,306 shooting incidents from the period between January 1, 2022, and December 31, 2022, a 48 percent increase from the yearly average of the previous three years. Recent shootings outside of some Portland high schools has prompted discussion on whether police should be put back into Portland Public Schools (PPS) less than three years after their removal.

On December 14, 2022, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office held a press conference to push back against the narrative that the county’s criminal justice system is broken. Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt claimed that the challenges that Multnomah County is facing are amplified by a shortage of law enforcement personnel, public defenders and prosecutors. Additionally, Wheeler stated that the Portland Police Bureau were holding talks with Portland Public Schools to bring school resource officers back into the local schools after they were removed in June of 2020. (Although the PPS school board had voted back in January 2019 to end their contract with the Portland Police Bureau, it wasn’t until June 2020 that both the PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler decided to end the program.)

Four days after the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office held the press conference, The Oregonian published a letter to the editor by Kristen Downs, in which she expressed her desire for daily patrols around the perimeters of Portland Public Schools. Downs claimed that a daily police presence would deter criminals and ensure the safety of students by protecting them from drugs and gun violence, though she failed to share any evidence showing that the increase of shootings near Portland high schools is related to the removal of SROs in 2020. She attempted to back her claim by saying that the police believe the rise in gun violence and street drugs are due to Measure 110, the drug decriminalization legislation passed by voters in 2020, but no other evidence was provided.

The same Kristen Downs is also a community advocate for People for Portland, a political advocacy group that has campaigned for more patrols throughout Portland to police the city’s houseless population. In addition to advocating increased policing and criminalization of the rising unhoused population, the group is now using the same approach for Portland schools, launching a pre-written letter campaign that calls for the reintroduction of SROs.

On January 13, 2023, various government, education and public safety officials met at PPS headquarters to address recent gun violence near Portland schools. Although the meeting didn’t settle on any specific or planned changes going forward, PPS Superintendent Guerrero did say that the reintroduction of SROs into PPS high schools is still under consideration during a press conference after the meeting.

During a march on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, many teachers and activists voiced opposition to the idea of reintroducing SROs back into local public schools, including the Portland Association of Teachers. The vice president of the teacher’s union, Jacque Dixon, said that teachers would prefer investment in mental health services for students, and that they would like students and the community to be more involved in this conversation.

Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) recently interviewed Portland high school students about the issue of school safety. During the broadcast, which aired on February 6, 2023, the students were asked about the possibility of school resource officers returning to school. One of the students, Danny Cage, said,

The conversation around public safety can’t be reactionary, and that is just what I’m seeing right now. We see gun violence is happening, therefore we have to put resource officers in. And there is a reason why they were taken out of our schools.

I am really scared because I feel like this conversation is being led predominantly by people who have money and power in the city, and my fear and my concern is that this isn’t a solution, this is not going to fix school safety.

Cage also pointed to the school shooting at Uvalde, Texas, as an example of why SROs wouldn’t address the issue.

The school shootings in Uvalde and Parkland, Florida, both occurred while SROs were on campus. Neither the SROs nor the responding officers did anything to prevent the tragedies.

Another student, Byronie McMahon, who is on the school board for PPS as a student representative, told OPB that SROs do not make most students feel safe.

The presence of SROs in schools often harms BIPOC students and students with disabilities. Police presence in schools often leads to an increasing number of suspensions, interrogations, surveillance, harassment, threats of punishment, and other forms of criminalization that all create unnecessary trauma and violence, which disproportionately affects marginalized students.

Data from the Portland Police Bureau’s Strategic Services Division for the fiscal year 2017-18 reveals that while around 9 percent of PPS students were Black, they represented 16 of the 28 students arrested by police and SROs during school hours. Furthermore, while over 55 percent of PPS students were white, they only represented 8 of the 28 arrests during the same year. This data shows a clear example of the disproportionate targeting of BIPOC students compared to their white peers; a pattern mirrored in cities across the country.

While the concern for the safety of children is a valid one, fear-based solutions that include criminalization and policing are not the answer, especially when they are shown to cause disproportionate harm to students from marginalized communities.

The fact that this conversation is taking place less than three years after the decision to remove SROs from PPS exemplifies how the struggle for abolition not only consists of dodging ineffective reformist policies that only legitimize policing and the carceral state, but also fiercely defending hard-fought victories.

We need a spark to light the fire of our imaginations to envision a future without policing. Only then can we achieve a truly liberatory vision of safety for everyone, including children in our schools.

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