Recently the Superintendent of Salem-Keizer Public Schools allowed the district’s School Resource Officer (SRO) contract to expire, effectively removing SROs from our schools. The decision was made in response to claims the current model of SROs in schools disrupts the learning environment and disproportionately impacts students with disabilities, LGBTQ and Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), even though a student led task force made up entirely of BIPOC students concluded that SROs are needed in S-K schools. I agree with the student task force. SROs are needed in our schools and we need to create an accessible, equitable and safe learning environment for all children so all may thrive; systematic reform is needed.
There is no guidance under Oregon law on what, when or how SROs and school administrators should work together. There are also no common standards for SRO training and qualifications as there are for all other education professionals. Within the same school district it is possible for children committing the same acts in different schools to receive very different outcomes. One may be disciplined by their principal while the other could be arrested and referred to the criminal justice system, with possible life-long impacts.
Oregon is uniquely positioned to ensure all students receive fair and equal treatment in schools by enacting statewide standards for SROs. All law enforcement professionals in Oregon must be certified by the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training and SROs should be no different. Additionally, the Teachers Standards and Practices Commission, which licenses all education professionals, should provide guidance for school administrators who work with SROs, so it is clear whether the administrator or SRO should take action to discipline a child. The legislature must enact these reforms now.
SROs must be held to higher standards than the average patrol officer and have mandatory training on youth development, restorative justice and trauma-informed practices, mental health issues in youth, recognizing bias, and best practices for interacting with disabled, LGBTQ, and BIPOC students. When SROs are in schools they should also wear casual yet professional clothing that would make them less intimidating to the many students who hold negative associations with uniformed police and find SROs disruptive to their learning. These practices and requirements have been implemented effectively in many states and school districts across the country. Most importantly the SRO must focus on school safety and take a back seat to school administrators, teachers and counselors for normal youth development issues and every effort should be made to keep children out of the criminal justice system.
Ultimately the issue of whether SROs are in S-K schools is a community decision. After talking to hundreds of community members during my campaign it is clear the community supports SROs in schools. The BIPOC student led task force came to the same conclusion. It’s time for the district to heed community voices, not ignore them.
(Richard Riggs is a candidate for Salem-Keizer school board position #1 and is the Western Region Director for the Oregon State University Extension Service.)