Wednesday, July 15, 2020

My Monthly Column – July 2020

SRO Decision the Result of Lessons Learned
By Xavier Botana

I fully support the Portland Board of Public Education’s recent decision to discontinue police school resource officers in our schools. That’s a statement I would not have made as recently as last fall, when we first started discussing the SRO issue.

What started as a recommendation for SROs to wear body cameras evolved into a larger conversation set against the backdrop of the nationwide movement to recognize how law enforcement and other institutions in our society – including our schools – perpetuate systemic racism. As our conversation expanded and deepened, so did my understanding.

I have learned a great deal over these past months. I’d like to share my learning with you.

I began our SRO conversation by glowingly citing SROs value as first responders, crime deterrents, adjunct administrators, mentors and police public relations officials. I was thinking not only of our Portland Police Department SROs, but also of my friend Dion Campbell, the current police chief of Michigan City, Ind. Back when I worked there, Dion, who is African American, a graduate of the local high school, a star basketball player and an ordained minister, was our outstanding SRO.

But as I listened and learned – through multiple conversations with Board members and staff, familiarizing myself with local and national data, reading scores of emails and letters from community members on both sides of the issue and listening carefully to hours of public comment – I realized I had missed some things regarding the impact of having police in our schools.

First, I missed the troubling array of our current policies that provide the police extensive and largely unwarranted access to our students, including their educational records, camera footage and the results of administrative searches. It’s too easy for law enforcement to reach our students at school and to obtain their information. 

On the national level, schools have come to rely on police as the quickest way to enforce behavior norms. We, too, sometimes call police to help us manage the difficult conversations that we should be addressing ourselves. 

I know some of our students feel a sense of security seeing a police officer in school. But I missed the fact that others – particularly students of color – feel the opposite way. At a time when Black Americans suffer disproportionately the impact of police violence, we should not discount those students’ fears.

The resolution that the Board approved to end our use of SROs now seeks to address those issues. It directs me to engage in a thorough revision of our nine policies regulating the district’s relationship with law enforcement.  

If you have ever had any question about the caliber of Portland Public Schools graduates, please listen to the hours of testimony on the SRO topic on the district’s YouTube recordings of the June 30 Board meeting

I feel proud and fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn from thoughtful young advocates on both sides of this issue, and look forward to working with members of the Portland Public Schools community to create a plan that prioritizes the voices of students of color and meets the safety and educational needs of all of our students.

I hold that Portland is exceptional in many ways. The Portland Public Schools now has an opportunity to lead New England in creating a different approach for ensuring that our schools are safe and welcoming places for ALL of our students. I believe that we will emerge better and stronger from the difficult conversations around this issue.