The Portland school board will decide Tuesday whether to terminate or keep police working as school resource officers in Portland and Deering high schools, but a counter-proposal would put the brakes on the process and give school leaders up to a year to consider the idea.

School board member Sarah Thompson and a group of 10 students, teachers and parents have submitted a resolution to extend the district’s agreement with the Portland Police Department until July 2021 to provide time for a comprehensive study of the program.

Thompson said the current process is rushed and not inclusive because many have not been paying attention to school issues since school let out for the summer.

“This seems to be (getting) pushed through in a quick manner, without a lot of engagement,” she said.

The move to terminate the contract now is part of the response to calls across the nation to reform police departments in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, which sparked nationwide protests against racism and police brutality.

In Portland, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to demand change, while other communities also have held rallies.

Portland school board member Emily Figdor, the co-author of the resolution to end the program with board Chair Roberto Rodriguez, said she’s confident the votes are in hand to terminate a memorandum of understanding with Portland police that currently provides one officer for Portland and one for Deering high schools.

“I feel quite confident we will pass the resolution,” Figdor said. “It is long overdue. This moment has been a real wake-up call in the aftermath of George Floyd.”

The meeting will be 6 p.m. Tuesday held over the online program Zoom.

Portland police officer Mike Bennis communicates with Portland High School administrators on a radio in November 2019. Bennis serves as a school resource officer. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Thompson said it will be an “uphill battle” to get enough board members to support the competing resolution, which she co-authored with several students, teachers, parents and a school district social worker.

The resolution would have the school board receive input during the upcoming school year and make a decision for the 2021-22 school year.

She said a possible middle ground could be keeping the school resource officers, but have them be plainclothes officers and unarmed.

“Nobody’s talked about any of that, they are saying, ‘Just get rid of them,'” Thompson said. She said the resource officers reduce the number of service calls from Deering and Portland to the police, and they are trusted by students and staff to solve problems that arise.

But Figdor said the district would be better off hiring more social workers to support students.

“There isn’t evidence SROs actually keep schools safer,” said Figdor, arguing they are a response to school shootings, such as at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. “We are acting out of fear, not acting out of what the research and evidence is.”

Members of the public who spoke at a school board meeting on June 16 were overwhelmingly in favor of removing the officers.

Portland Police Chief Frank Clark sent a letter to the board and Superintendent Xavier Botana this month in support of having the officers in schools. The officers have formed positive relationships with staff and students.

“We have previously discussed not only the actual safety and emergency response time benefits, but the enhanced feelings of safety and security that SROs provide to students and staff,” Clark wrote. “During a period in which trust in police is being strongly called into question, ostracizing our well-trusted and respected police staff from the ability to positively engage with the singularly most diverse segment within our city, its schools, seems counterproductive in terms of achieving and maintaining mutual trust and respect.”

Student surveys conducted this spring showed overwhelming support for the officers, though participation was low.

At Deering, only 83 of about 800 students responded. Of those, 66 percent said they support having an SRO, 24 percent were neutral and almost 10 percent would prefer not to have or were strongly against having an SRO.

At Portland, 288 of about 870 students responded to the survey. About two-thirds of respondents were white and about two-thirds were female. The surveys were conducted by the schools individually and the Deering survey did not include student demographics.

Almost 62 percent of the responding students at PHS said they really like having an SRO, 27.6 percent said they felt neutral, 9.5 percent said they preferred not to have an SRO and about 1 percent said they were strongly against having an SRO.

Botana has not taken a stand on the topic, but has said he would reveal his position at Tuesday’s meeting.

 

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