Our Opinion: Resource officers make schools safer
Last Saturday thousands of people took to the streets of Portland as part of a nationwide protest against gun violence in schools.
The march was planned in response to the Feb. 14 shooting in Florida in which 15 high school
students and two teachers were gunned down, but came just four days after another school shooting in Great Mills, Maryland, where a student killed one classmate and wounded another. That was the 17th school shooting of the year, according to a tally by CNN.
The demonstrations came in the midst of fierce debates about specific school gun control measures, from limits on the types of weapons that can be sold to restrictions on who can buy them.
Those ideas, though divisive, are worth discussing, but there's evidence — here in Oregon and in Maryland — of something less controversial that's already working.
As noted in a two-part series that ran in the Portland Tribune last week, school resource officers play a critical role in school safety.
This was evident on the morning of June 10, 2014, when a 15-year-old student arrived at Reynolds High School in Troutdale armed with an AR-15 military-style rifle, nine magazines, a pistol and a knife. He shot and killed a 14-year-old student and wounded a P.E. teacher in the boys' locker room.
The teacher was able to escape and alerted two Multnomah County sheriff's deputies assigned to the school. Those school resource officers charged at the shooter, driving him away from the gymnasium, where 90 fellow students were gathered, and back into a restroom, where he took his own life.
It was a horrific event, but as made clear in the after-action report prepared by the Multnomah County Office of Emergency Management, it could have been much worse:
"Three minutes after the initial shots were fired, two school resource officers entered the gymnasium building and likely interrupted the shooter, who fled into the boy's bathroom located just outside the gym."
The recent shooting in Maryland had a similar plot line in which an armed student entered a high school early in the day and opened fire in a crowded hallway. As at Reynolds, a school resource officer was in the building and his quick response is credited with ending the threat before more students were harmed.
As many as 20,000 school resource officers already patrol schools across the country. There are around 200 in Oregon, with at least one in every Portland-area school district.
While school resource officers make news whenever they are involved in a shooting, their real value comes in preventing them. Portland Tribune reporter Jim Redden found several examples of school-based police officers in Oregon confiscating weapons before they were used, often tipped off by concerned classmates. In addition, officers are trained to help identify students with mental health problems who need help.
There are skeptics about the practice of putting armed officers in schools. Many minority students already have experienced disproportionately harsh discipline within their schools and may, understandably, view police as a risk, rather than a resource. That's especially a concern in a city like ours, where police make disproportionally more traffic stops of African-American drivers, and in a country like ours where police have killed several unarmed blacks in well-publicized incidents.
Given such concerns, the solution is not to ban officers from schools, but to work to restore trust through training and monitoring.
Complicating the conversation about school resource officers is a lack of solid statistical data or agreement about how they can be most effective.
"There has not been a clearly articulated role for the police in schools," Ronald Sabatelli, a human development professor at the University of Connecticut, told an Education Week reporter last year. "And there needs to be a reinforcement of best practices in terms of how to respond to disciplinary issues with students."
Luckily Sabatelli and other researchers are stepping in, leveraging grants from the National Institute of Justice to study various aspects of school safety, including police presence in schools.
Their results won't be ready for a few years, but in the meantime, we urge Oregon policymakers to take their own steps and examine the role of school resource officers in our state.
While there is no way to guarantee that every child is safe at school, we suspect school resource officers can play an even bigger role in making them safer.