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In wake of Texas shooting, debate over school resource officers in Oregon resurfaces

Some parents are calling on Oregon districts that removed SROs to reinstate them, while others question how effective they are for protecting students.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The mass shooting at a Uvalde, Texas elementary school has parents and school officials across the country asking what can be done to keep students and teachers safe.

Some want to know if school resource officers should return to districts that took police officers off campuses. One of those parents is Vanessa Ellison, whose son is a second-grade student enrolled in Salem-Keizer Public Schools.

“I was very upset when they took them out,” said Ellison.

When thinking about the school shooting in Texas, Ellison became teary-eyed.

“My son only has 18 children in his whole classroom,” she said. “I told my daughter that could have been his whole class.”

Some parents call for reinstating SROs in districts that had them removed

Ellison is one of the many parents calling on districts to reconsider utilizing police officers stationed in schools, known as school resource officers or SROs.

KGW received numerous emails from parents who called on Salem-Keizer school officials to reinstate SROs.

“It's just like, why wait for it to happen again? Why not use it [SROs] as a deterrent,” said Ellison, who referenced a recent school lockdown in the district. “It’s just like, what do you expect? Do you expect all these teachers to try to stop a shooter?"

Others remain against having SROs in schools

Not everyone feels similarly. Some say taking SROs out of schools is the right call. Danny Cage, a junior at Grant High School and PPS Board of Education policy committee member, is one of many who are against having SROs in schools.

“I definitely understand the rationale behind that kind of response, but it seems extremely short term and more reactionary,” said Cage in regard to the call for reinstating SROs.

In June of 2020, Portland Public Schools also stopped utilizing SROs in schools, a move 17-year-old Cage supports.

“I have never felt safer with cops being in school,” said Cage, who also described a situation his freshman year where he said he witnessed an SRO yelling at a student having a mental health crisis and a teacher had to step in to de-escalate.

The effectiveness of SROs

Some studies suggest SROs may negatively impact students of color by making them feel less safe at schools.

But how effective are SROs in preventing a school shooting? That's not an easy question to answer. According to a 2018 report from the Congressional Research Service, "The extent to which the presence of an SRO has prevented a school shooting [...] is unknown."

Also in 2018, the Washington Post did an analysis of nearly 200 incidents of gunfire at schools since the Columbine school shooting in 1999 and found only one instance in which a school resource officer stopped an active shooter.

But Rick Puente, an SRO of about 20 years and vice president of Oregon's School Resource Officer's Association, said it's about preventing violence through developing relationships and utilizing a multi-pronged approach to school safety.

“The SRO’s just one component along with school administrators, parents, community, faith-based community services, all those come into play and they are the key ingredients to making a safe and secure school district or school building,” Puente said.

Most importantly, Puente said, students need to remember if they see something, say something.

Finding solutions

Ellison understands some people's reservations about having an armed officer at school, but she wonders if there's a way to address discomfort among communities of color.

“Maybe it might make them feel more comfortable if they had an SRO that was of an ethnic background,” said Ellison. “Maybe we can look at things like that."

Ellison said most of her social circle is comprised of people from different ethnic backgrounds and who support reinstating SROs.

But Grant High student Danny Cage wants to go deeper than addressing the SRO debate.

“If we want to prevent gun violence, we have to get to the root cause of the issue and police will not fix that and they will never fix that,” said Cage.

Where both sides agree is that something needs to be done before another tragedy like what happened in Uvalde happens yet again.

Where districts stand now

As for where things stand now, Salem-Keizer and Portland Public do not have school resource officers currently patrolling school property, though law enforcement will respond in an emergency.

At Beaverton schools, SROs are still being utilized, although city and district leaders have hired a consultant to do a review to determine the future of the SRO program. That'll be completed this summer.

The Tigard-Tualatin School District also continues to utilize SROs after the district underwent a community review process in the 2020-2021 school year.

Meantime, the Forest Grove school board, for the first time, decided not to use SROs for this school year. But in the meantime, the district is collecting data, which could influence what eventually happens with the program next school year.

In southwest Washington, Vancouver Public Schools has something called District Resource Officers who are employed by the district but trained by law enforcement.

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