In the summer of 2020, in the midst of a global protest movement against police violence, Portland Public Schools (PPS) Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero announced that he was effectively discontinuing the presence of Portland police officers in district schools.
“With new proposed investments in direct student supports (social workers, counselors, culturally-specific partnerships & more), I am discontinuing the regular presence of School Resource Officers [at PPS],” Guerrero wrote in a tweet. “We need to re-examine our relationship with the PPB.”
Mayor Ted Wheeler strongly supported Guerrero.
“Leaders must listen and respond to community,” Wheeler wrote. “We must disrupt the patterns of racism and injustice. I am pulling police officers from schools.”
Now, just three years later, in the aftermath of a series of shootings near PPS campuses, a PPS Safety and Security Task Force formed by Guerrero to review the district’s safety measures has recommended re-establishing the district’s partnership with the Portland Police Bureau (PPB).
Relaunching the police partnership is just one of 13 recommendations the task force made to enhance safety in the district. Other measures include requiring all middle and high school students to display their identification badges while on campus, piloting a roving weapons detection system at major high school events, and growing the PPS youth violence prevention team.
But it’s the recommendation to re-establish the PPB partnership and “reimagine” the bureau’s Youth Services Division that has generated the most controversy among students, staff, and observers.
The particulars of the partnership are yet to be determined, but Andrew Scott, the PPS board chair, was quick to point out in an interview with the Mercury that the district is not planning on returning to the pre-2020 school resource officer model.
“Personally, I don’t want to see police officers involved in student discipline,” Scott said. “I don’t want to see them back in our schools as a routine matter. I do want to see a stronger partnership with the bureau.”
That’s in large part because of the gun violence PPS has experienced in recent years. There were shootings outside of three PPS high schools during the current school year, leaving a number of students and their families shaken.
That violence has taken place in a climate in which PPS is facing broad challenges regarding enrollment. Elementary school enrollment has declined by more than 17 percent since the 2018-19 school year, largely due to a decline in local birth rates, with a select number of parents voicing concerns about safety as one of a variety of factors pushing families away from the district.
But for Elona J. Wilson, executive director of the progressive organization NextUp, the decision to respond to societal violence with police represents a failure of imagination.
“The default for adults and specifically for board members and probably for parents too, is police,” Wilson said. “That is the default for public safety, rather than these other very, very impactful investments in counselors, social services, etc, that we know do work. When folks are in fear mode, they revert back to their default.”
Wilson noted that studies have consistently shown that the presence of police officers in schools does not make students safer, but imperils non-white students who are subjected to harsher disciplinary measures. PPB in particular has a well-documented history of racism.
The task force is not recommending that PPB officers return to schools on a regular basis, but rather that they be positioned “near schools to help deter criminal activity” and “create clear parameters for engagement.”
It remains to be seen whether positioning officers near schools would have a measurable positive impact on safety in a way that positioning officers inside schools didn’t—especially when the issues ailing the district appear to be largely the result of societal factors well beyond its control.
Gun violence in Portland has decreased significantly so far this year as the city continues to recover from the worst economic effects of the COVID pandemic, with the number of deadly shootings in the city down 56 percent and the total number of shootings down 34 percent as of March.
Scott said he doesn’t believe a partnership with PPB is about preventing gun violence on or around PPS campuses, but rather the response to that violence.
“I think this recommendation is really intended to get to 'when the police are going to be called—and they will be, and they are—who is being called?'” Scott said. “How are they being called? What does that look like? And are they able to respond quickly and effectively and thoroughly?”
Scott said that over the past several years, there have been instances when PPB’s response times to calls on or around PPS campuses have lagged—though increasing response times have been an issue well beyond the school district. The bureau’s overall response time to calls has doubled since 2016.
Still, some PPS officials are hopeful that a relationship with police in which officers could potentially be assigned patrol areas near schools could boost response times. PPB did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Scott also said the recommendation to enter into a relationship with PPB is coming partly as a result of conversations with students, parents, and teachers—some of whom never wanted school resource officers pulled in the first place, others of whom want the opportunity to establish positive relationships with officers.
But much of that data is anecdotal. PPS doesn’t have any comprehensive data on how its community members feel about the presence of police in or around their campuses, and Byronie McMahon, the student representative to the school board, said that she personally has “never found any students who were very actively for SROs or for police.”
“If we are entering these conversations without full buy-in from our community, we need to be really clear about boundaries and really clear about communication moving forward,” McMahon, a recent graduate of Cleveland High School, said.
The district plans to pilot its new relationship with PPB when the new school year starts in the fall, with conversations set to continue between the district, city, and police bureau about what the pilot program will encompass.
The PPS board ultimately must approve policy changes—evaluating the PPB partnership is one part of a broader conversation that dates back to 2020 and well before it about how to truly achieve safety in schools and beyond.
“I think that is a natural response to want to do everything in your power to control the situation and ensure that folks are not put in harm’s way,” Wilson, of NextUp, said. “Something that I really urge us to do is be more thoughtful in this moment in trying to protect young people so we do not, indirectly, actually harm them.”