ashland.news
May 26, 2024

Principal, students ask for back up securing Ashland High School campus

Ashland Patrol Officer Angel Valdez, standing, is one of three candidates for SRO. Valdez attended the Ashland School Board meeting on Thursday evening. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth
April 15, 2024

Effort to return a dedicated police officer to campus faces some opposition, but mostly support; superintendent plans to move forward to install ‘school resource officer’ by fall

By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news  

On average, Ashland police officers are dispatched to the Ashland High School campus anywhere from one to six times a week, responding to incidents or aiding/consulting staff and administrators, said Ben Bell, principal of Ashland High School, during a school board meeting on Thursday.

Ashland High School hasn’t had a school resource officer (SRO) — a sworn law-enforcement officer who works in a school setting — in 10 years, but on Thursday, the Ashland School Board heard Bell, other administrators, teachers and students speak in favor of returning the full-time, city-funded role to campuses throughout the district.

Concerns from minority groups about the effort were also heard and are an ongoing part of the discussion moving forward.

“I think understanding the reality that we do consistently have (Ashland Police Department) support on our campus, I think it just makes a lot of sense for that person to be a single consistent person that can be on our campus daily, learn who are students are, learn about our parents, and start to develop those relationships,” Bell told school board members. 

“I think this (SRO) position is part of an overall puzzle, overall picture of school safety and security,” Bell said. “It’s not the one thing that I would expect to fix all of our different issues, but I think it’s an important part of the solution, and if we’re engaging with law enforcement on a regular basis anyway, I think it’s just logical for it to be a consistent person who could integrate into the fabric of our school.” 

Bell was among a variety of administrators and staff who spoke about interest in and the possibility of bringing a full-time school resource officer back to campuses in the Ashland School District starting this fall, pending executive action by Superintendent Samuel Bogdanove. Leadership students and administrators have been studying the possibility of returning a SRO to campuses since 2022, as the need for police presence at the high school has increased. 

“Our main goal throughout this year has just kind of been normalizing having officers on campus in a positive light, because I feel like a lot of times we see them when someone’s doing something wrong,” said Hank Stringer, a senior AHS leadership student representative.

Students have hosted police officers on campus for various events this year, such as cornhole tournaments, judging a talent show, and participating in a students-versus-staff basketball game.

“This year, we’ve seen a lot more people willing to come up to police officers and reach out and have a conversation, which I think is a really good first step in creating relationships,” Stringer said.  

Senior Kendra Machala said leadership students had received positive feedback on the campus when meeting with the Black Student Union on campus, though she said there is a need to find an officer who connects with the students and isn’t just another disciplinarian, a sentiment shared by staff and administrators. A message from the Asian American Student Union representative Sophie French favored the SRO’s return.

Ashland School Board members at the meeting Thursday. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth
Initiative to bring back SRO draws perspectives from minority students

A Black Student Union (BSU) representative was unable to attend the meeting, but AHS vice principal and BSU advisor Becca LaRoi reiterated concerns held by students of color on campus after being called upon by School Board Vice Chair Jill Franko.

“I think there are real concerns, and I think what we’re not naming or talking about is, you know, the systemic racism that is present in …  the criminal justice system and in our education system,” LaRoi said, noting that students of color would like to know how to prevent acts of systemic racism from happening. “I think when you talk about what students were worried about, especially (minority) students or students of color is that …  how will we prevent those systemic things from happening?”

LaRoi asked how the administration could implement a SRO in a way that alleviates concerns of a “school-to-prison pipeline” system that has been associated with SROs in the past.

“There are predictable patterns and outcomes across the board in all of these institutions,” LaRoi said. “The main concern that I’m hearing from students and parents … are how are we going to make this a system where whoever steps into that role is on the same page with the school and our vision to be inclusive, and how are they keeping equity (at the forefront) of all that.

“There’s been a lot of conversations around that, around how are we going to have all these systems of checks and balances in places that we can continually give feedback back to APD,” she added. “They want this not only to be an opportunity to view police officers in a different light. They also want to make it so there are police officers viewing our students in a different light … so that we can start to bridge those divides, because those divides exist … and they exist for a reason, so how can we use this opportunity for our students and our families to be humanized to law enforcement and also for law enforcement to be humanized to our students.”

LaRoi also noted that neurodivergent and special education students are also concerned about having an SRO on campus, as these groups have experienced negative impacts from SROs in the past.

LaRoi emphasized the need to have a SRO that keeps equity at the forefront.

“It largely is dependent on making sure you have the right person there, that you have the right systems in place,” LaRoi said. 

Having worked in the Medford School District, which has a SRO presence, LaRoi emphasized she is not for or against the initiative, but wanted to reflect student opinions and concerns. She values how SROs can conduct violent risk assessments on campus and that having a SRO on campus can improve the response time if a violent incident were to occur on campus.

“That being said, there is harm that could be caused, and we do need to address those things and we are having those conversations,” LaRoi said.

If the role were to be implemented this fall, Ashland Police say the role would be city-funded, and would not cost the district any money. The last SRO on Ashland campuses was in 2014-15. 

On Thursday, the board took no action, as the SRO is an executive decision that’s up to the superintendent. 

Ashland School Board Chair Rebecca Dyson, left, and Vice Chair Jill Franko, right, are seated in Council Chambers for school board on Thursday evening. Ashland.news photo by Holly Dillemuth
Student-led initiative with administrative support

Though the effort to return the SRO to campus stems from a student effort that started in 2022, AHS Principal Ben Bell believes a SRO would help foster relationships with teenagers rather than having different patrol officers come to campus each time.

“That is the driving force of what makes successful work happen with teenagers,” Bell told school board members. “I think understanding the reality that we do consistently have APD support on our campus, I think it just makes a lot of sense for that person to be a single consistent person that can be on our campus daily, learn who students are, learn about our parents, and start to develop those relationships.”

The dialogue around the return of the SRO has been a collaborative effort involving a wide range of constituents, Rebecca Bjornsen, an administrative staff member, told school board members. 

“We strive to be sensitive to all perspectives, and have been driven by the needs of our high school students,” she said. “This inclusive approach has been pivotal in shaping the direction of all our conversations. Two years ago, our students voiced a strong desire for an SRO. Their voices have been at the forefront of these conversations.”

Bell also addressed the complexities of the role, which has been absent from Ashland schools the past decade.

“I understand it is a complex issue and there are many different reasons why some folks may be concerned or hesitant about having a SRO on campus and I think that those are all valid,” Bell said. “I want to reiterate that as the principal, the SRO is not a disciplinarian and will not be involved in enforcing our school policies, or our discipline matrix … those are school functions and we will handle that as a school staff. And so I really think of the SRO as a resource for us, someone who would be ingrained in our school culture and will really make the work we do with students more efficient and more successful, and I would expect to have more positive student outcomes as a result of having a SRO.”  

Bell said AHS staff conducted a lockdown drill with officers from Ashland Police Department during the past two weeks, and said some of the officers were unfamiliar with the campus, through no fault of their own.  

“I think it would be incredibly valuable to have a person, an officer, who is there for all of our drills, understands all of our procedures, is engaged with all of our safety and security planning,” Bell said. “If we ever have a real emergency, we’re going to need someone who can engage with and coordinate with all of the emergency services and know the campus very well. We need some extra help and support with securing our campus. As you all know, it’s a very open campus. We sometimes have community members who come on campus, either before school starts or during the school day, and aren’t responsive to us when we ask them to leave campus. It can make for an uncertain situation and so more than once over the past few years, we’ve had to call APD to support us with escorting community members off campus. That presents an unsafe situation for our staff that have to be on the front line and deal with those situations. And I would feel a lot of comfort for our students and for our staff to have someone on our site who again knows our campus and would be able to provide a support we would really benefit from in those situations.” 

Longtime Medford Police SRO sheds light on role, impact

Mike Jackson, a longtime Medford Police officer and SRO for two Medford schools, also spoke to board members about SRO practices and philosophies. 

Jackson serves as president of the Oregon School Resource Officers Association and recently started serving on the National Association of Resource Officers.  

He defines the role of a SRO as primarily a counselor and mentor rather than as a patrol officer. 

He emphasized that the role of a SRO is unique to each school and can be tailored to the needs of students and staff.

“We are informal counselors, mentors, coaches, cheerleaders, and finally — cop,” Jackson said. “There is a time when enforcement needs to happen.”  

But he noted it is the last resort to involve an SRO and is up to school officials.  

“I don’t tell kids to take their hoods off or stop crying in the hallways or spit out their gum,” Jackson said.  

Jackson added that it is often SROs who can take “the bigger picture” for a student into consideration when that needs to occur, but that being a disciplinarian isn’t the goal.  

“What I love is when I can identify one of those students that clearly has fears or … anger or negative feelings towards law enforcement because I love to be able to go to work a little bit on that kid, and see if I can build those bridges,” Jackson said.  

Every SRO position will look a little bit different, depending on the school district, Jackson added.  

“An SRO in Ashland might look a little bit different than a SRO in Medford or West Linn or Newberg,” Jackson said.

Ashland Police Det. Sgt. Bon Stewart emphasized his relationship-based approach while serving in the role for the Ashland School District in the 2014-15 school year.

“I was never there to enforce the school rules,” Stewart told the school board. “The only enforcement I did take, I was asked to do that by the school. I was there as a mentor. I mentored at least 10 kids in their senior projects.

“The program is for protecting the kids, protecting the campus, and being here for the kids,” Stewart added.  

Paul Huard, a longtime Ashland High social studies teacher, remembers seeing Stewart in action in the role. Huard also spoke in favor of bringing a SRO back to campus and emphasized he didn’t represent the beliefs of all teachers at the school.

Huard has been overseas as a volunteer in war-torn Ukraine and neighboring Poland the past two summers, but told school board members that he worries for his safety right here in Ashland.

“I regret to say that I don’t always feel safe at Ashland High School,” Huard said, noting he is not laying blame on anyone. “I see things that are going on with kids that just seem not to be right.”

Huard sees Ashland High as essentially a small town of 900 people. 

“And that’s just the students,” Huard said. “Throw in 60 to 70 individuals who are staff, among others, that’s quite a sizeable community. We deserve to have our own police officer.

“I didn’t come here to tell horror stories, but at the same time, I have to be frank,” he added. “I arrive rather early on campus in order to get my classroom ready … and I had come to come to school and had a colleague who also arrives early and tell me, ‘Paul, could you please come with me? There’s somebody sleeping out in front of my classroom.’”

Huard said he also is often concerned whether some students at school are doing OK as some can exhibit “worrisome” behavior. 

He noted that he has seen Stewart in action as the previous SRO on campus and the relationships fostered with students.

“It’s the relationships that keep the bad things from happening before they actually happen,” Huard said.

“If you have concerns about having a school resource officer on campus, come join me under my desk during a lockdown,” Huard added. “Come see what that’s like to be in the trenches … I want to be safe, I want to go home at the end of my day to my wife and my dog.”

Two district employees also shared their opposition to the concept of a SRO returning to campus during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Steven Essig, who spoke to school board members not as a OSEA union representative but as a community member, shared that he is “deeply troubled” by the district’s priorities to implement a SRO, in light of budget cuts to other important areas.

Essig called the move to install a police officer on campus as contradicting a professed support for the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

“It’s a disservice to our community to push such unimaginative and uninspired approach and then command the most privileged students  … to push this effort and bring it to the board without a comprehensive survey from all students,” Essig said. 

“In a year marked by losses, collapsing ceilings, dwindling counseling and library services, it’s disheartening to see these responses to economic anxiety and mental health struggles veer towards further criminalization and increased policing,” he added. “Presenting officers as informal counselors instead of addressing root problems and moving toward truly transformative and restorative practices.”

Ashland High teacher Isaiah Creel also shared his opposition to the concept of returning a SRO to campus.

“Cops are not teachers — teachers are teachers,” Creel told school board members. “Cops are not counselors, counselors are counselors.”

He acknowledged that the city is funding the SRO position, though the district will have oversight.

“If the city wants a teacher, they should give us money to hire more teachers,” Creel said. “If the city wants a counselor, they should give us money to hire more counselors. Calling a cop a teacher cheapens my profession. … 

“Regardless of how they are at cornhole, they are the government-sponsored agents of violence,” he added.

D.L. Richardson, from Southern Oregon Black African American Student Success (SOBASS), spoke regarding the potential negative impacts of SROs on students from marginalized populations and about the concerns of families for students of color. He also emphasized he is not for or against a SRO on campus, but wanted to offer context and represent the perspectives of students of color. 

“When you bring in a SRO, there’s a negative connotation that they feel that they’re going to have to deal with it,” he said, referencing how some minorities feel around the issue.

Richardson facilitated a recent meeting with families of students of color, attended by Ashland police and Superintendent Samuel Bogdanove.

Richardson, addressing Huard’s comments about feeling unsafe at Ashland High, noted that there are students getting the N-word directed at them in the hallways.

“How about you walk with me and them through that and figure out how to change that within the Ashland School District?” Richardson said.

He noted it’s not just happening in Ashland but everywhere.

“That’s happening, too,” Richardson said.

Richardson has seen injustices play out between SROs and other schools where students of color were disproportionately taken into custody, as well as positive relationships between SROs and students, where mutual respect was shown.

Richardson emphasized that the school district could have a memorandum of understanding where either the school district or Ashland police could withdraw their participation from such a program if necessary.

“I think that’s actually a positive,” he said.

School Board member Eva Skuratowicz noted there should be due diligence done by the board regarding the possibility of a SRO.

Watch the meeting
To view video of the meeting, click here and select the April 11 meeting.

“The literature’s divided right?” Skuratowicz said. “Half of it’s positive and half of it shows negative outcomes.

“I want to make sure that we are in the positive half of outcomes for students.” 

She also expressed a desire to hear from students, including minorities, who may not be engaged in school, but who have alternative perspectives to those being heard.

Skuratowicz called for more data as part of the decision when moving forward and would like to ensure student privacy is paramount.

“I think both of those are appropriate,” said Superintendent Samuel Bogdanove.

He said Ashland police are working on drafting policies addressing some of the concerns shared from minority groups as the district continues to look at bringing back the SRO position.

“Obviously there’s an enormous potential for benefit, and there’s also a significant potential for harm here,” said Rebecca Dyson, school board chair. “So we need to sort of keep those two things in mind and make sure that we guide this process the right way.”

It is currently unclear when a student survey will be conducted on the topic.    

Implementing a SRO in Ashland schools is on Bogdanove’s short list before he retires June 30.

Following the meeting, when asked what his specific course of action would be, he said, “Based on what I’m seeing, (bringing back a SRO) it’s the right thing to do.”

“If we don’t try to do something better, we’re never going to get something better,” Bogdanove said. “And so that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Bogdanove noted that he would like the backing of the students, high school staff, community, and school board as well.

“We want to do it right, so I think we have to consider, what are the impacts and risks, how do we address those, and what is the impact of not having an SRO?” 

There are currently three candidates for SRO, two of whom are persons of color.

Interviews are slated to be conducted in May and will include a panel of representatives from the school district, including a student.

Reach Ashland.news staff reporter Holly Dillemuth at hollyd@ashland.news.

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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