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Portland PD chief in talks about bringing SROs back to some city schools

The conversation started in the wake of a third shooting outside a school in the last two months

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Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell speaks at a press conference.

Photo/Dave Killen of OregonLive.com via TNS

By Maxine Bernstein
oregonlive.com

PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland’s mayor and police chief said they’re talking with school district administrators about whether it’s time to bring police officers back to at least some schools in the wake of a third shooting outside a school in the last two months.

“There’s a conversation about it,” Chief Chuck Lovell said Wednesday, after appearing at a press conference in the downtown courthouse with the Portland and Gresham mayors, Gresham police chief and Multnomah County District Attorney.

“I think there’s interest on both sides.”

The chief acknowledged that the Police Bureau is still facing staffing challenges and it would be difficult to pull officers away from responding to emergency calls to be dedicated full-time to schools.

Yet Lovell, who worked as a school resource officer at Jefferson High School early in his career, said he’s in talks about resuming the school resource officer program and what it “might look like” in the future, while also addressing more short-term responses.

Portland Public Schools issued a notice to parents on Wednesday describing the steps it’s taking to keep students safe. If there’s an immediate threat outside the building, the school will “secure-the-perimeter,” or go into “lockout” with doors locked and no one able to enter or leave until a threat is cleared. In some situations, campus safety personnel may respond.

Further, the district is adding cameras inside and outside all schools. All classroom doors are also receiving upgrades that will allow classrooms to be locked from the inside.

“In nearly every circumstance, school leaders will take steps to enhance their visibility around campus, open lines of communication among staff, raise situational awareness among staff and students, and solicit more information from students and families,” the district’s message said.

On Monday, a 16-year-old Cleveland High School student was wounded in the calf in a suspected drive-by shooting outside the Southeast Portland school during the noon hour. Police responded but a suspect’s car already had sped off, leaving at least a dozen shell casings behind, police said.

In the last two months, three Jefferson High School students were shot and wounded in two separate shootings outside the North Portland school.

On Nov. 14, a 17-year-old Jefferson student riding in a car was shot in the shoulder shortly after dismissal when someone in a passing car fired at the vehicle near North Killingsworth Street and Haight Avenue, one block from the school’s field, according to police.

On Oct. 18, two students were shot and wounded, one in the leg and the other in the hand, outside the school’s gym when other teens fired at them from a passing car they later crashed. The suspects in the car ran off and no arrests have been made.

At the request of Jefferson High School leadership, the Police Bureau temporarily assigned a North Precinct officer to the school during the day from Thanksgiving up until winter break, according to the chief and Allen.

“Anything longer than that would have to be a more formal arrangement with the district,” said Sgt. Kevin Allen, a bureau spokesperson.

On Wednesday, police also provided an “extra presence” around Cleveland High, before and after school, and during lunch time, the principal told students by video. On Wednesday night, the school district hired two Portland police officers to be present at a Cleveland High School basketball game.

[PODCAST: Why we should not remove SROs from our schools]

The Police Bureau has 791 sworn officers, with 91 vacancies. It has hired 66 officers so far this year, and expects to swear in another class of 15 new hires by the end of the week, Allen said.

Mayor Ted Wheeler, who serves as police commissioner, said Wednesday that he believed it “would be a mistake” when the school district in June 2020 decided against allowing school resource officers in its nine city high schools and feeder schools.

“At the time, I thought that would be a mistake,” the mayor said Wednesday.

Yet at that time, Wheeler supported the exodus of sworn police from the city schools, the same day that Portland School Supt. Guadalupe Guerrero had made the decision. That decision came at the height of demonstrations over the murder of George Floyd, amid calls for reforms in the criminal justice system and protests against police brutality. Students of color expressed fear over a daily police presence at school and increased referrals of youth to the juvenile justice system.

On June 4, 2020, Guerrero announced that he was yanking city-funded school resource officers out of nine city high schools and feeder schools and would spend more on social workers, counselors and culturally specific supports for students. Guerrero’s announcement came a day after Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty reiterated a call she made to defund the $1.6 million program then paid for out of the Police Bureau’s budget.

After Guerrero’s announcement, Wheeler had tweeted on June 4, 2020, thanking the district. “We agree. Leaders must listen and respond to community. We must disrupt the patterns of racism and injustice. I am pulling police officers from schools,” the mayor’s Tweet read.

On Wednesday, the mayor pledged “a closer collaboration’’ between Portland police and city schools.

“If there’s one place in this community that people should feel safe above all else, it’s the kids in our schools,” he said. “We have an obligation to work together to do something about it.”

School board members have heard from parents and school staff concerned about student safety in the wake of escalating shootings in the city, and students shot outside two high schools.

On Tuesday night, Portland school campus safety officer Montrell Brazile addressed the board before working at a high school basketball game.

He urged the school district to re-establish a relationship with Portland police to keep students at Jefferson High and other schools safe.

At parent-teacher conferences recently, he said parents were consistently concerned about their children’s safety at Jefferson. The temporary assignment of one Portland officer has brought some “relief,” Brazile told the board. Brazile said his son also is a student at the school.

“The stuff that’s going on now is above me... It (demands) security and law enforcement. We need them,” Brazile said. “We have to do something now. We cannot wait.”

School board member Julia Brim-Edwards supported a school resource officer program in the past but said she did not support the city’s attempt to shift the cost for the program to the school district.

“I am very concerned about student safety,” she said. “We need to have a conversation with parents in the community, our public safety officers and the Police Bureau about how we’re going to keep our students safe, and ask the question whether school resource officers are one aspect of that and if there’s some other strategies.”

NEXT: Back to school with no SRO: Will attacks increase?

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