“We don’t need cops in schools.” So says Oregon Student Voice, a youth-led nonprofit organization that has taken aim at removing school resource officers, or SROs, in 18 area school districts, including Canby, Oregon City, West Linn-Wilsonville, Lake Oswego, Tigard-Tualatin and Colton.
SROs are sworn law enforcement officers responsible for safety and crime prevention in schools, and who are typically stationed at schools while on-duty — rather than a police station or on patrol.
But, according to Samantha Block, Oregon Student Voice co-executive director and a junior at Lincoln High School in Portland, SROs “cause more problems than they solve.”
“There are better ways to keep kids, teachers, and school staff safe,” she says. “The statistics are clear: SROs increase suspensions, expulsions, arrest, and juvenile court visits, especially for students of color.”
The group cites studies that they say show the presence of SROs does not make students feel safer at school and does not reduce violence, crime or even school shootings. (In an op-ed, Block points out that an SRO stationed at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School did not stop a gunman from killing 17 people there in 2018.)
“Schools should be safe, and students and staff should feel safe in them, but a police presence in our schools does nothing to accomplish this,” she says. “It is time for a new approach.”
The group is circulating an online petition calling for SROs to be removed in the 18 districts. More than 160 have signed it as of Thursday afternoon. Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest district, already announced it would discontinue its SRO program last month.
Canby has one SRO, who operates out of the high school. The program was established around the year 2000 with Officer Steve Christman, who’s still with Canby PD, but was replaced as SRO by Greg Larrison.
According to Chief Bret Smith, this will be Larrison’s last year serving as SRO, and Officer Michael Manns has been selected to step into the role.
Chief Smith says the SRO program has a number of goals, mutually agreed upon by the Canby School District and Canby PD, including to address criminal activity at schools (such as disorderly conduct by trespassers and possession of weapons or drugs on campus) and develop programs and activities that increase students’ knowledge of and respect for law enforcement.
He readily admits that the district and police department’s intentions for the program go beyond reducing violence and enforcing the law.
“I believe our SRO program has existed for 20 years because the police officers have built relationships with the students, while at the same time serving as a resource to students, teachers, and administrators to help solve problems,” Smith tells the Canby Now Podcast.
SROs receive training in counseling and other skills to help them be effective in a school setting, the chief says, and are expected to build relationships with students and faculty.
“Without exception, the SRO’s job often doesn’t end at the close of the school day,” he says. “Part of their responsibilities involve being present at extracurricular activities, where much of the trust-building between the SRO and the students take place.”
SROs in Canby often take the lead in the classroom, he says, providing evidence-based teaching on subjects such as bullying prevention, gang resistance, criminal investigation, laws and constitutional rights, substance abuse, conflict resolution, restorative justice and youth-relevant crimes like dating violence.
Officer Larrison has been a coach for high school sports and has even spent time helping students with homework.
“Even though a primary motivator for an SRO is to keep students safe, an SRO who is properly ‘fitted’ for the position and trained can have an important role in creating a positive police and student interaction,” Chief Smith says. “SROs are encouraged to have conversations with students and school staff to help bridge the gap across stereotypes, bias, cultures, identify and develop a shared vision, and promote the mission of a police officer’s commitment to safety.”
That said, they do play an important role in addressing crime. Chief Smith says Larrison responded to more than 1,600 incidents in the 2018-19 school year alone, all of which would have been dispatched to uniform patrol officers if the SRO position did not exist.
The chief says Canby PD has received few complaints about the SRO program or officers who had held that role.
“The complaints we have received have most often or generally reflected a concern by parents about their child in respect to a decision made by the school administration that also involved the SRO,” he says.
When asked by the CNP if Oregon Student Voice has received specific complaints about the SRO program in Canby, Block replied, “Yes and no.”
“We were looking for student testimony from your school district in order to learn more about specific incidents involving your SROs,” she said. “Virtually every student we have talked to has complaints and specific incidents where their SRO acted badly, but we haven’t gotten the chance to interview any Canby students yet.”
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