As the Gresham-Barlow school board met for a work session Thursday evening inside the district office, about a dozen Gresham High School students gathered outside district offices with a message. They were drawing attention to how the school resource officer — the in-house police officer at Gresham High — treats students of color.
“Our voices have continuously been silenced, and we have addressed that our school is not a safe place for students of color, numerous times, with multiple administrations and people in charge,” said Stasia, a junior.
In most circumstances, OPB does not use the last names of children in news stories to protect their privacy.
Stasia is a member of a newly formed group of Gresham High students called Students Against Oppression. The board only allows written public comments during board meetings, so Stasia read the public comment the group submitted outside the meeting, with several classmates standing behind her.
“In the contract our school district has with Gresham police department, the written purpose of the SRO is to improve relations with students and ensure student safety,” she read.
“As your student body, we are telling you that this is not our experience on the receiving end and we are demanding that there are consequences.”
Districts typically employ school resource officers to provide campus security services while also developing positive relationships with students.
Gresham High students of color said Thursday they’ve felt targeted, harassed, intimidated, discriminated against and profiled by the school resource officer. They said issues with the school resource officer at Gresham High have been going on for years, including an incident reported by the Gresham Outlook in 2019 that prompted a student protest. The school resource officer in that case is still assigned to the school district.
The student group has been circulating a petition among their classmates, including through a signature drive at school Wednesday. Mackenzie, a Gresham High junior, said the group has had over 200 signatures from students who want all SROs removed from the district. The group advocates increasing the number of mental health counselors, and putting a “community-based security team” in place instead.
“That allows students to feel safe with the people monitoring the schools,” Mackenzie said.
Gresham officials suggest support for SROs, after Portland districts have eliminated them
The Gresham Police Department said there’s support for SROs as well, mentioning that several students wore T-shirts Wednesday, the same day as the petition drive, that said “SROs belong in schools.”
Lt. John Rasmussen with the Gresham Police Department characterized the student group’s claims as “libelous and potentially slanderous attempts to defame the school resource officer” in an email to OPB. He said officers do not profile students, though he can “understand some people feel intimidated by officers and even knowing or believing someone has a gun.”
Students in the group mentioned that other Portland-area school districts have removed their school resource officers, including Portland Public Schools, and David Douglas and Parkrose school districts. Gresham-Barlow’s eastern neighbor, the Reynolds School District, has a school resource officer program, and recently shared a survey with the district community to ask for feedback on the role of SROs in schools and the community. Conversations around law enforcement presence in school buildings have been going on for years in Oregon and nationally. After a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd in May 2020, the conversation gained increased relevance along with a national reckoning over racial justice and police violence, starting with the Minneapolis Public Schools ending its contract with the police department.
Gresham-Barlow acting Superintendent James Hiu said he will update the board Nov. 18 on the district’s SRO program and address concerns and complaints that have been shared.
The student group said their concerns with the school resource officer are part of a broader pattern at the school, involving other campus staff and administrators.
Group member Stasia recalled being accused of carrying drugs by a staff member.
“I was told that I would end up like Breonna Taylor if I had a substance on me that I shouldn’t have had,” Stasia said, referencing a Black woman killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky.
The school district responded that it was aware of that interaction and that it was responded to appropriately, but wouldn’t provide further details, calling it a personnel matter.
Another student, Mary Jane, said she dropped a class in part because of comments made by a teacher about her hair.
“Knowing that these things are happening to my fellow students... that’s disgusting, and we are children, and we shouldn’t be hearing these words from adults, they are traumatizing, it’s hard to focus on school because of the anger that I feel,” the student said. “And no one should be going through this.”
“It’s definitely making it harder for students to be excited to be at our school,” said senior Nadia.
Students said they did not feel supported by several staff members at the school, and the ones that do support them, are not open with that support.
Students, staff send SRO concerns to Gresham school board
Of the nine public comments shared with the Gresham-Barlow school board Thursday, five related to ending the school resource officer’s contract. The other four were about mask wearing in sports.
Two of the SRO comments came from staff members.
One of the staff comments came from a Gresham High social worker, Kate Poland, who said this year she has seen the “highest incidents and acuity of mental health concerns” for students in her seven and a half years in the district. Including links to articles about the role of school resource officers, she called on the district to redirect SRO funds toward more direct support for students.
“Each day we scramble to try to address crisis after crisis,” Poland wrote. She said the school lacks capacity to provide “school-wide supports and interventions to support all of our students.”
“If the money dedicated to SROs were re-allocated to school use,” Poland continued, “we would be able to shift from primarily crisis response to building a robust program offering evidence-based, culturally-specific supports for historically underserved students that would include things like mentors and additional social workers and counselors.”
Gresham-Barlow staffer Alayna Windham’s comment mentioned that a school resource officer has made home visits to students and their families without the school’s knowledge. She wrote that multiple students of color are facing charges or are out of school “for which no other restorative actions have been attempted by the school as a first line of action.”
Asked about Windham’s comments, the school district said the SRO was “acting within his duties as a Gresham police officer” in making house visits. Gresham police recalled a “recent incident” in which an SRO made a house visit. Rasmussen said the conversation was captured on a body camera, and no student was taken into custody. The case, an alleged assault on another student according to the Gresham police, is being “forwarded to the Multnomah County Juvenile Department.”
Other comments on the issue came from Pueblo Unido PDX executive director Cameron Coval. Coval’s organization works with families in the district, and said they received “troubling reports” that SROs have used excessive force and profiled students of color inside and outside of school.
Senior Mary Jane said one of her teachers shared a lesson on the conversation around police officer presence in schools on Thursday, where she learned about different stories of school resource officers harming or having a negative effect on students.
“Knowing that these things are happening in other places, and not just in our school really goes to show how this is not just a Gresham thing,” Mary Jane said.
“This is a thing that’s happening in other schools too.”