PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Although school violence is an ongoing problem across the nation, Portland Public Schools will finish this school year without two significant safety increases — a better contract with the Portland Police Bureau for school resource officers and physical safety improvements at schools financed by existing funds.
The ongoing risks were starkly revealed when an 18-year-old Parkrose High School student walked onto the campus and into a classroom with a loaded shotgun on May 17. The student was tackled by coach and security guard Keanon Lowe, who held him in a hallway until police showed up and arrested him.
Students and staff at other schools haven’t been so lucky.
Many school districts across the country contracted for more school resource officers — or SROs, police who are assigned to work in public schools — and physically upgraded their buildings after the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students and staff members were killed and 17 others injured.
But that did not happen at PPS.
The school board originally approved a new contract with Portland police late last year intended to increase the time SROs spend in its schools. It would have required the district to pay $1.2 million per year for officers who are specially trained to work around students. The bureau had been paying their entire salaries for years — but providing only 12 officers to patrol 170 public, private and charter schools. They work four 10-hour days each week and must spend one day doing normal patrols because of the bureau’s staffing shortage.
But then the board rescinded the contract on Jan. 29 after students complained they were not consulted on it.
“Students need support, not armed police patrolling the halls like a war zone,” Roosevelt student Breely Buttitta told the board. “How is putting more guns in schools supposed to make us feel safer?”
The resolution rescinding the contract said the district expects the police to continue providing officers to its schools, however. “Given it is the responsibility of the city to provide general safety and security for its citizens, PPS expects the city to provide these services to the school district in each of the nine high school clusters, five days a week,” it read.
That goal is not yet being met, however. Because the contract was rescinded, the police bureau is still not providing enough officers to fully cover all schools in the district every day. District spokesman Harry Esteve says school officials are discussing the situation with the city, but the board does not appear inclined to pursue a new contract with the bureau.
“At this point, the board is content to let the city continuing providing the officers,” Esteve said.
The situation is so confusing, some members of the City Council don’t seem to understand the current arrangement. During the May 22 budget hearing, commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Jo Ann Hardesty both said they were surprised to learn recently that Mayor Ted Wheeler had requested $1.6 million for SROs in his proposed budget for the Portland, Parkrose and David Douglas school districts. The amount only continues the existing level of service, however.
Safety upgrades still in the works
At the same time, PPS started the school year with $5 million in voter-approved bond funds reserved for physical safety improvements at schools, including video monitors at entrances. School officials had prioritized and publicized the first schools to receive the improvements, starting with Beverly Cleary-Fernwood, a K-8 school in Southeast Portland. But even though the funds were approved in May 2017, no work was ever scheduled for this school year, prompting several parents to complain to the Portland Tribune.
“This is not complicated work. The electronic access control systems are wireless, so you don’t have to rewire the school to install them. Everything else is simple, too,” Beverly Cleary-Fernwood parent Morgan West told the paper in January.
Esteve said the work is still not scheduled to start until this summer. But since January, district officials decided to dedicate an addition $4 million to the Secure School Project so that all schools will receive safety improvements.
“We want to hit all 88 schools and we now have a schedule,” said Esteve, who explained the work will be done in three phases, ending in spring 2020.