As Portland Public Schools announced its intent to dismantle its school resource officer program, Battle Ground was celebrating the expansion of its own.
The city of Battle Ground announced last week that it had received a $125,000 grant to add a new school resource officer, a sworn police officer, to Battle Ground Public Schools. The three-year grant will partly pay an officer’s salary to patrol primary and middle schools in the north Clark County school district.
The Thursday announcement comes at a time of renewed scrutiny for school-based police officers, prompted by the death of George Floyd after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Demonstrators across the United States have called to strip funding from police departments, including limiting police access to schools.
District and city officials say that the addition of a police officer on campus helps police build positive relationships with students, allowing officers to address issues proactively rather than arrest and enforce students.
Criminal justice reform experts disagree.
“If somebody has research that shows school resource officers make schools safer, I’d love to see it,” said Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. “I’ve never seen research that says that.”
The three-year federal grant comes from the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. It will pay $41,666 per year for an officer’s salary and benefits over that time. Local funds, split by the district and city, will cover the rest.
School resource officers in Battle Ground make between $70,609 and $84,631 depending on where they fall on the salary schedule.
Battle Ground Public Schools has one school resource officer assigned to Battle Ground High School. A sheriff’s deputy is assigned to Prairie High School. District officials say that if an incident occurs at a primary or middle school, Battle Ground High School’s officer is pulled away to address it.
Tom Adams, the district’s director of student services, said he is eager to expand the program to the elementary school level.
“They get to interact with our younger population, where you have a greater chance of changing their life trajectory,” Adams said.
Battle Ground Police Chief Mike Fort said enforcement of crimes in school is a small part of what their officer actually does. He said they primarily focus on developing relationships with students, teachers and counselors in an effort to prevent crime. Department estimates suggest their school resource officer makes an average of seven arrests in an academic year, compared with 47 by the average patrol officer.
The school resource officer is also on hand to interview students who may have witnessed crime occurring on or near school grounds, he said, or to respond to issues of domestic violence involving students.
“It’s designed to keep kids out of the criminal justice system,” Fort said. “We can’t arrest our way out of crimes.”
But research suggests that putting police in schools is not the way to prevent crimes, and can even make students feel unsafe on campus. A 2011 study by the Justice Policy Institute, said adding police in schools can drive children into the criminal justice system for minor offenses like swearing at teachers or throwing spitballs at classmates.
Funneling students into the criminal justice system can, in turn, contribute to students dropping out of school, leading to missed job opportunities and poorer life outcomes overall.
Growing research suggests that students of color are often more likely to face scrutiny by school police officers, Schindler said.
“What the research bears out is, kids of color disproportionately are subject to discipline and referral to police and courts when there’s law enforcement on school premises,” he said. “The types of disparities we see throughout the justice system occur through the school context.”
On the flip side, districts that have invested in counselors, social workers and other adults — not police — who support students report better outcomes for students. The Justice Policy Institute’s research suggests schools that have invested in those programs saw significantly lower rates of student victimization and bullying than those that didn’t.
“They’re less expensive than a cop who is faking it as a social worker,” Schindler said. “Let’s not ask the police to do things that are not their expertise.”
Funding for the new school resource officer must be approved by both the city council and school board.