Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from board members as well as attendance data from PPS.
One of the recommendations before the Portland school board in a new suite of safety and security plans is a collaboration with the Portland Police Bureau to “re-establish” the Youth Services Division. But that would not mean armed officers returning to schools.
Instead, Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero’s safety and security task force, which consists mostly of district administrators along with teachers union representatives, board members and the board’s student representative, is recommending the district collaborate with the Portland Police Bureau to make sure officers are “available and near schools” in case of emergency situations.
The recommendations also include a plan to pilot walking patrols at five schools to “provide a positive, trusted adult presence” for students before and after school.
Superintendent Guerrero asked the board to weigh in on the recommendations during the meeting Tuesday. Board members spoke in support of the walking patrols, but questions remain about what the district’s relationship with PPB should be going forward.
One board member, Herman Greene, advocated for having police officers stationed in schools. He said he doesn’t care “what the kids say” about the issue, saying adults know what’s best for students.
“If we recognize there are areas where, I know this isn’t what you want, but it’s what you need [...] your frontal lobe hasn’t even developed yet fully, so you don’t even know what you don’t know,” Greene said to laughs from board members.
“Maybe my frontal lobe isn’t developed, but you haven’t been in a school for 20 years,” said the board’s lone student representative, Cleveland High School senior Byronie McMahon in response. She noted her comfort in disagreeing with Greene was a “testament’ to their good relationship as fellow board members.
McMahon said she doesn’t think police belong in school – but it’s not just about what she thinks.
“Students not only should be at the center of the issue but they are at the center of this issue. It’s called ‘student safety’ for a reason and the second that we lose sight of who we’re serving here is when we as a board have really failed in our job,” she said. “I encourage every person here: Don’t kick students out of the equation.”
PPS is recommending that plans for the reconstituted Youth Services Division, the availability of officers for emergencies at schools and the walking patrols get underway this fall, but they will require implementation plans. With regard to exactly how police officers will be involved, Guerrero said the “next level” of conversations will now happen with PPB.
“What we’re talking about is dedicated officers working in communication with our school leaders in our school systems,” Guerrero said.
District officials say the partnership with PPB will be based on an agreement that outlines “rules, roles, and responsibilities.” PPS chief of staff Jonathan Garcia said students will be involved in the conversations going forward.
“We will definitely engage with students to make sure that we’re getting it right,” Garcia said. “Whether it’s the marketing campaign, to ensure our students know what supports they have available and really create a culture of belonging and acceptance.”
Portland Public Schools, like other districts around the country, is navigating a time when school safety concerns are top of mind for students, parents and staff. In Portland, the impacts of gun violence have reverberated with school communities, leading to conversations between the city, county, and school district about how to deal with gun violence at the school level.
The question of whether or not to have police officers in schools is a cause for contentious debate in Oregon and across the country.
Recommendations focus on systemic changes across schools
The Portland Public Schools district’s 13 recommendations to the board cover numerous aspects of safety and security, including staffing, technology, training and policies. According to the district presentation, the suggestions were informed by focus groups, a districtwide survey, research-based solutions to gun violence, and the Superintendent’s task force. The recommendations range from small solutions, like requiring middle and high school students to have IDs at all times, to larger, more costly efforts.
The district suggests expanding the campus safety team, particularly at middle and high schools, and extending their operating hours. The district’s report quotes parents and one principal advocating for more security presence, especially during evening activities.
“I would hope these staff are regular employees invested in the particular school with knowledge of the campus and familiarity with students, so they can also hold students accountable for behavior and language that is not fit for [the] school environment and model positive behavior,” the parent wrote.
Another recommendation aligns with House Bill 3101, legislation that would require a “panic alert device” to be installed in every school classroom statewide. Other suggestions include a review of emergency communication systems.
The district’s recommendations go beyond adding security personnel and installing new technology.
They include creating a campaign to “promote a culture of belonging and acceptance,” which includes a strengthened partnership between the district and Lines for Life to increase access to peer support for youth in crisis.
District officials also recommend new protocols to promote student attendance. Garcia said the task force heard from students and staff who wanted a “reset” of high expectations around school attendance, to make sure students and staff are in class and ready to learn.
That’s not happening consistently right now, Garcia said.
“Unfortunately, we do see pockets where students are roaming the hallways and not being active in the classroom setting,” Garcia said.
According to PPS data, attendance across all grades has declined in the last two years compared to pre-pandemic levels. High school attendance was at 91% for Portland high school students in 2018-2019. This year, it stands at 86%. Elementary and middle school attendance has fallen from 94% to 91% and 90%, respectively.
Poor school attendance has also been an issue for schools in Oregon and across the country in recent years. PPS Senior Director of Security and Emergency Management Molly Romay said it’s a safety issue.
“Accountability of students is one of our highest priorities,” Romay said. “It’s critical that we know where students are. Having them be in class learning, we can then quickly identify where students are. When they’re out in the halls, it elevates risk when we don’t know exactly where those students are and how to account for them.”
District officials considering a variety of sources to pay for safety changes
Implementing all of these changes would be costly. The cost of some recommendations varies from $250,000 for the community walking patrols to $1.3 million to increase the number of campus safety team members and extend their hours patrolling schools.
The Superintendent has allocated $500,000 to safety and security in his proposed budget for next year, Garcia said. But that will not cover all costs.
Garcia said the district is considering reallocating $1.5 million for ventilation improvements toward safety. The district has applied for an Oregon Health Authority program that will help pay for the planned ventilation improvements.
“We’re going to transition some of those dollars,” Garcia said, noting that the school board would have to approve the movement of those funds.
If passed, HB 3101, the panic button bill, includes an appropriation from the state general fund to help school districts pay for the new technology. Garcia also mentioned applying for federal grant funds for help, as well as local sources.
“We continue to be in conversation with both the county and the city,” Garcia said. “We suspect that there are resources they have available.”
After the board reviews the recommendations, district staff will move forward with implementation plans. Some of the recommendations, like the pilot with PPB and the walking patrols, are set to be implemented this fall.