PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon’s largest school district will no longer have police officers in its schools and joins a handful of urban districts from Minneapolis to Denver that are rethinking their school resource officer programs amid national outrage over the death of George Floyd.
Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said Thursday that Portland Public Schools needed to “re-examine our relationship” with the police in light of protests over the death of Floyd, a handcuffed black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes.
The district of more than 49,000 students joins Minneapolis, which severed ties with its school resource officers on Tuesday. Districts in St. Paul, Minnesota and Denver are considering doing the same. Protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, have made the end of the school resource officer program in their district one of their demands.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said Thursday that he would also discontinue using school resource officers in two smaller metropolitan districts under a program that costs the city $1.6 million a year.
The move is in response to the demands of thousands of protesters, many of them young, who have filled the streets of Oregon’s largest city for six consecutive nights. Having the officers in high schools has been a touchy topic for several years in this liberal city. Students have protested in recent years for an end to the program, at one point even overwhelming a school board meeting.
“Leaders must listen and respond to community. We must disrupt the patterns of racism and injustice,” Wheeler said Thursday of the most recent demonstrations. “I am pulling police officers from schools.”
The presence of armed police officers in schools is a contentious one. While many Portland residents applauded the decision, others raised immediate concerns about student safety in the event of a school shooting or other emergency. Wheeler said the city would make sure officers could respond rapidly in an emergency.
The move is “a knee-jerk reaction,” and the decision by a few districts to stop their programs could snowball — to the detriment of students nationwide, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, whose association represents about 10,000 dues-paying officers.
There are an estimated 25,000 school resource officers nationwide, he said.
“What happened last Monday is atrocious. I don’t know how someone who wears a uniform, like I used to do, could get to that point. That’s evil,” Canady said of Floyd’s death. “But … I think there’s some shortsightedness here. When it’s done right, the SRO program really is the epitome of community-based policing. I hate to see the baby thrown out with the bathwater.”
Beyond their law enforcement role, the model for school resource officers endorsed by the U.S. Justice Department enlists them also as mentors, informal counselors and educators on topics ranging from bullying to drunk driving with the goal of promoting school safety.
But critics of the concept say the officers’ presence can also lead to the criminalization of students, particularly students of color, who may be labeled as troublemakers for things such as not paying attention in class, using a cellphone or other minor infractions. In 2015, a school resource officer in South Carolina was caught on video flipping a female student to the floor and dragging her across a classroom after she refused to surrender her cellphone.
Nationwide, 43% of public schools had an armed law enforcement officer present at least once a week in the 2015-2016 school year, the last time the National Center for Education Statistics released data on this topic.
Properly trained officers work closely with school administrators, Canady said. Generally there is an understanding that anything short of illegal activity should be handled by school officials, he said.
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