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Eugene School District 4J high schools will no longer be staffed by school resource officers following the school board’s decision to only renew their contract with the Eugene Police Department until Dec. 31, 2020. (Summer Surgent-Gough/Emerald)

School resource officers will no longer be located in Eugene School District 4J high schools, following the school board’s decision in June to only renew the contract with the Eugene Police Department until Dec. 31, 2020. 

The decision came after the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake this summer, which reignited the Black Lives Matter movement and a push to defund the police. 

Mary Walston, 2021 chair of the Eugene School Board, said the fact that the board had the opportunity to renew the contract at such a critical time made for “the perfect storm.” 

“For me personally, we need to do something differently because I know what we’re doing isn’t working for everybody,” Walston said. “I don’t know what the answers are, but we’re trying to change 400 years of institutional racism in this country. I personally feel a moral obligation and responsibility to do what I can do.” 

Walston said she believes the problem is not with EPD, but the fact that they are painted with the same brush as the Minneapolis Police Department. She said the decision to remove SROs was difficult because some of them felt personally maligned by the conversation. 

A former SRO for the district did not respond to a request for comment.

Had students been on campus this year, SROs would have been present from the start of school until Dec. 18, the last day before winter break. SROs are sworn officers assigned to a school to provide law enforcement and law-related counseling. Walston said SROs handle on-campus crimes, angry parent interactions and suicide calls. But to some students, the presence of a police officer only makes things worse. 

Jeffrey Squires, a senior and the student vice president at Churchill High School, said the consensus among his peers was that the SRO assigned to his school never needed to be there, and made many students uncomfortable.

“We’d have a kid who’d just be skipping third period, and then all of a sudden here comes [the SRO] walking in with the kid on his arm and it looks like the kid’s being arrested or something. He so didn’t need to be there for that,” Squires said. “You can tell that the students got on edge when he came in. There’s a cop in the room; nobody wants a cop in the room.”

When it comes to dissipating hostile parent interactions or helping students with their mental health, Squires said he has seen campus and student counselors handle those situations just as well as a police officer, if not better. 

“On the topic of sexual assault and abuse, police officers have no idea how to navigate that. Every time it has happened at our school and it has been brought to a police officer, it has always been mishandled and it has ended up in a horribly traumatizing manner for a student,” Squires said. “Students just feel like there’s no one they can go to if a police officer is the only person they can go to.”

The school district’s contract with EPD is over $400,000, and many protesters thought that money should go toward funding teachers and counselors. Walston said the board plans to use next year’s budget to “beef up” wraparound services such as emotional and mental health counseling for students. The district will release the new budget in April 2021. 

“But the caveat to that is with the pandemic and with the downturn in the economy, we have gotten less money than we thought we were going to get,” Walston said. “We initially thought we’d get $13 million with the Student Success Act and that has been scaled back 4.3.” 

The school board is still figuring out how to provide necessary safety services without the presence of SROs, and Walston said the planning is taking longer than she would have liked. It’s a huge task, she said, but she is hopeful that the board can incrementally make some changes at the district level. 

“This work is never done. It’s like a garden — you plant it, you weed it, you keep tending it,” Walston said. “I don’t think this work will ever be done in my lifetime. But that’s not a reason not to try and keep moving forward.”