April 17, 2019 — Last week, Florence Police Commander John Pitcher and Officer Brandon Bailey gave the Siuslaw School District Board of Directors a report on the School Resource Officer (SRO) position at the school district.
According to board chair Suzanne Mann-Heintz, the board invited Bailey to speak after hearing about improved attendance rates in the schools.
“The board was hoping to get an update on your sense of our effectiveness,” Mann-Heintz said to the SRO, who has served in the position since January 2018. “We’d like to know a little more from your perspective about the services you’ve been able to provide and the effectiveness in terms of our students.”
Siuslaw School District and the Florence Police Department initiated the SRO program in the 2017-18 school year by using grant funds and school resources. Now in the middle of its second year, the program has helped to improve school safety by having an increased presence in school facilities, to detect and apprehend students who miss school and to assist in traffic enforcement and safety around the Siuslaw schools on Oak Street.
Pitcher said, “We’re in year two, and the program is evolving. We’re learning what works for the administrators, works for the officer and works best for the kids.”
“It’s been a learning curve and process for me on how to work with the administration here and my role in the school. We’ve just kind of been going along and seeing what works and what doesn’t,” he said. “I wouldn’t lie and say everything has worked so far — it hasn’t. I’ve made mistakes and I’ve learned from things.”
According to Bailey, the schools haven’t had an SRO in nine years.
“As a relatively new police officer to Florence, I didn’t know what type of job this was going to be. I don’t think anybody really did, unless you’ve done the school resource position. It’s definitely a different kind of policing,” he said. “You go from the streets and dealing with adults and then going and working with children.”
Now that Bailey has some time at the schools under his belt, he hopes to transition into a more proactive form of policing.
“Unfortunately, this year has been really reactive for me,” he said. “We’ve really had a lot going on at the schools, not to put anybody on blast, but we’ve really not had a lot going on at the elementary school, it’s been more at the high school and middle school. We’ve had a lot of minor in possessions recently. We’ve had a lot of the vape pens and things like that.”
A Minor in Possession (MIP) of alcohol or marijuana charge requires youth to take diversion classes through Youth Services, a division of Lane County. These classes teach the dangers of underage drinking. When youth complete the course, the MIP is expunged from their record when they turn 18. Thanks to Healthy Directions Coalition, there is now a class offered in western Lane County.
According to Bailey, advancements in vape pens or e-cigarettes have made them cheaper, easier to acquire and harder to detect. In addition, they can be used not only for tobacco products but also for cannabis.
“It’s hard for staff and myself to detect that,” Bailey said.
Despite that, MIPs have risen in the Siuslaw School District at both the middle and high school levels. In March, Siuslaw Middle School Principal Andy Marohl reported that “the use of marijuana has gone up significantly” at his school.
“In looking at my behavior data over the last three years, it has been a little discouraging to see it coming up again,” Marohl said. “Kids in middle school make bad choices. That’s part of their prefrontal cortex and lack of decision making and impulse control. With the availability of marijuana by adults, there is becoming a new level of complacency in the home, where it’s not being secured. Not only are we seeing a rise in it, we’re catching it more because of the camera use.”
According to a February 2019 Oregon Health Authority report, “In 2018, eight percent of Oregon eighth-graders and 20 percent of Oregon 11th graders reported current marijuana use in the past 30 days.”
That number is up for eighth grade, which dropped to seven percent in 2017, but down for 11th grade, which has declined for the previous two years since reaching 23 percent in 2016.
Thanks to Florence Police Department’s presence in the school, something tangible can be done about the increase in MIPs.
“In the past, when the people in the front row—” Bailey said, gesturing to the Siuslaw school administrators — “get the cigarettes, marijuana or whatever the item is, usually it’s school discipline and that’s where it would finish. Now that we have law enforcement as a resource, we’ve been able to get these kids into the juvenile system.”
He said Healthy Coalition’s first diversion course was successful.
“We filled the class up, and I’m pretty sure we have enough for another one,” Bailey added. “The juvenile system is in no way meant to get kids convicted on things. It’s to correct the behavior so it doesn’t happen again. When I explain to the parents, it’s not to get the kids in trouble. It’s just another habit that we can help correct behavior.”
Marohl believes that most students in the middle school don’t use or support marijuana use.
“Most kids, I would say 90 percent or more, disagree with it. They don’t want anything to do with it. It’s those kids in the red zone, the tough five percent, that are getting the most referrals, making those decisions. The other kids, when they see it or smell it, they report it,” he said. “Hopefully we can find interventions at a young age so this doesn’t carry on and continue into high school and beyond.”
Oregon Health Authority has resources for families who wish to address marijuana use at www.healthoregon.org/marijuana/. For more facts and statistics, visit www.oregon.gov/oha/PH/PREVENTIONWELLNESS/MARIJUANA/Documents/fact-sheet-marijuana-youth.pdf.
Dealing with prohibited products and addressing adolescent behavior is just one way the SRO partners with the schools.
“The staff has been amazing and great to work with,” Bailey said. “They’re really proactive on being able to fight these things and deal with them effectively. I just come in to be another tool for the school.”
Siuslaw Elementary Principal Mike Harklerode said, “Even before the SRO program, we’ve always enjoyed a great working relationship with Florence Police Department. … With Brandon here, we now have a through-line that is consistent. The follow through and following up is much more informed on our end. You’re informed and in the schools, knowing the kids, knowing the families — and some of the families get the other policing as well.”
Since the beginning of the program, the SRO has served as a way for the police to foster a better relationship with the community.
“When we were first looking at this, one of the positive benefits of having an SRO was to kind of shift student perception about policemen, because so much of what you see on TV and what you hear is that police are harsh and bad and discriminatory and all that,” Mann-Heintz said. “Do you feel you have made any inroads into that?”
Bailey responded, “100 percent. It is night and day from when Sgt. (Brandon) Ott was the first SRO here. Even after Sgt. Ott spent a little time in the schools, … kids were much more receptive. Now it’s no big deal. When we first would come into a school, everyone was like, ‘Why are the police here?’ Usually, people don’t call the police when something has gone right. Usually it’s when something’s gone wrong. Everybody was wondering why, but they’re so comfortable now it’s no big deal. … It’s been great to see.”
Siuslaw High School Principal Kerri Tatum said, “He’s kind of become invisible, which is what you want. He’s just there.”
Harklerode added, “It’s been very efficient for me at least to work with Brandon. Frankly, the elementary stuff is not the MIPs, but some of the heavier issues that befall elementary kids. Some of them have pretty sad situations, and Brandon is there to see them through.”
“It’s definitely different and a totally different type of policing,” Bailey reiterated. “Not only is it different from street police work, it’s completely different from each of the other schools.”
Director John Barnett said, “I know I speak for most of the board, and it was quite a job to be able to get an SRO on staff. I know it was a big push, and big help from Florence Police working with the district. It’s been a really good relationship and we’re just really happy to have you here. It’s been nice to see that cohesion between the law enforcement and the district and continue to see that grow.”
The SRO’s work is never done, and the Florence Police have additional training for Bailey on child abuse prevention and forensic interviews — where he will be trained to legally interview minors for use in court.
Over the next couple years, Siuslaw School District and the Florence Police Department will need to seek additional grants to keep the SRO program funded
“I know it’s a big priority for the chief to keep this program and make it permanent,” Pitcher said. “What I’m excited about is that we have a young officer who has expressed interest in also being an SRO. As she gets some experience, we could get the opportunity to have a female officer. I’ve seen how young girls respond to female officers and I’m excited for that in the future.”