During a Gresham-Barlow school board work session Thursday, acting superintendent James Hiu announced that one of the district’s school-based police officers was being reassigned. Hiu also said that the whole school resource officer program would undergo a review from a third-party consultant, taking input via focus groups as the district considers further changes.
“This will not be performative, but will also review data from our staff, students, and district,” Hiu said.
The announcement follows several Gresham High students sharing their negative experiences with the police officer stationed at the school earlier this month. The students had also circulated a petition, requesting the district remove officer Ryan Gleason from Gresham High School and add more mental health support to the school
Last week, state representative Ricki Ruiz, D-Gresham, sent a letter to the school board and district leadership, asking the district to take the school resource officer out of the school.
“There is no doubt that the continual employment of Officer Gleason at Gresham-Barlow School District leaves many students feeling physically or mentally unsafe,” Ruiz wrote in the letter dated Nov. 9.
“...With Gresham High being amongst the most diverse schools in the area, it is imperative that we find a School Resource Officer that believes in the school district’s goal of providing a safe and culturally responsive environment for students to be inspired and empowered to learn.”
The district has said Gleason acted within his role as a police officer in an instance earlier this year when he allegedly visited a student’s home without the school’s knowledge.
The presence of police in schools has been a topic of debate, especially in the months following George Floyd’s murder by police and racial justice protests in 2020. School districts in neighboring Portland have removed law enforcement from school buildings, and student-led action to remove officers in other districts followed.
Before Hiu gave his update on the district’s program, he spoke with school board members along with assistant superintendent for K-12 schools John Koch, and the principals of Gresham and Barlow high schools. Split between two tables, the groups talked at the same time, making the discussions nearly impossible to follow over Zoom, at the beginning of the meeting.
School board vice-chair Kris Howatt said the groups talked about what was going well with the program, and possible opportunities for change and improvement.
“We’re not going to go into a whole lot of detail about that now,” Howatt said. “...This was just an information gathering.”
Members of the public are currently barred from attending Gresham-Barlow’s board meetings in person.
As the board met, a group of students and supporters marched through a cold rain from Gresham City Hall to the Center for Advanced Learning - a Gresham-Barlow charter school hosting the board meeting. They chanted, “no more silence, no more lies, we will not be victimized,” advocating for the elimination of school resource officers from Gresham High.
After the conversations, Hiu shared his update.
Part of that update included an apology to “all involved” in a 2019 incident between Gleason and a student, which led to a student walkout. Hiu, who was the district’s deputy superintendent for human resources at the time, said he reviewed the incident and said it happened in part due to a lack of clear expectations for the officer.
“It is apparent to me that the school district placed the school resource officer in a very challenging position,” Hiu said. “The school district is solely responsible for student management and discipline, not school resource officers.”
Hiu noted that the district has hired 12 additional school counseling positions using state and federal funds.
According to Hiu, Gresham High School will not have an officer for the rest of the district’s current contract with the police department, which expires June 30. Until then, the officer based at Barlow High School will respond to emergencies at Gresham, or 9-1-1 will be called.
Hiu said school resource officers serve as a partner and resource in case of emergencies, and minimize property damage. He called them an “essential part of our school safety equation”, citing the support for officers expressed in results of a one-question online survey from last year.
Other possibilities for the district going forward include working with nonprofit Face to Face PDX, a group Hiu said the district has been in touch with. According to the group’s website, its mission is to connect “cops, kids, and communities.”
And as the district and police department work on future contracts, Hiu said he’s directed district leaders and the police department to review the documents and make sure they set clear roles for police officers and school staff, as well as “description of administration vs. police-related searches.”