The Salem-Keizer School Board (Salem Reporter/file)

The Salem-Keizer School Board Tuesday night postponed final action on the billion-dollar school budget to allow more consideration of a surprise proposal to remove police officers from local schools.

The board’s decision reflects yet another government acknowledgement of growing citizen demands for reform, sparked by the death of George Floyd and fueled by some of the largest demonstrations Salem has experienced. The Salem City Council on Monday asked for a review of police actions during those demonstrations and more officer training.

By the time the school board met Tuesday evening, local groups, community leaders and even elected officials had aligned behind a call for the Salem-Keizer School District to end its practice of paying for police officers to work in local schools. That upended what would have been a routine approval of a $1.5 billion budget to run the school system for the next fiscal year starting July 1.

Instead, board members considered calls and written testimony in a meeting that lasted nearly four hours and resulted in the board setting over for two weeks, until Tuesday, June 23, action on the budget.

The board’s unanimous decision aligned with Superintendent Christy Perry’s recommendation on the matter after the board aired eight live calls, 23 emails, two recorded video statements and 31 online comments, all favoring slashing funds for putting Salem police in public schools. The emotional meeting was watched by nearly 100 viewers on YouTube Livestream.

“Regardless of whether you delay or not, I will look at the contract [with Salem police] and have community conversations,” Perry told the board.

The push to remove the school resource officers was led by Salem youth organization Latinos Unidos Siempre and joins similar efforts across the U.S.

Minneapolis and Portland school districts have ended similar policing contracts over the past week after calls from local activists, and Seattle Public Schools leaders announced Tuesday they plan to suspend a contract with local police for one year. Many of the public commenters Tuesday cited Portland’s decision as a model to follow.

One caller, who identified as having grown up undocumented, asked, “When are you going to stop hiring SROs and instead more teachers, teachers of color? If it’s possible in Portland, it can be possible here too.”

Another caller, Gerald Turner, a biology teacher at West Salem High School, called in to say that he thinks the system can’t continue either ethically or financially the practice of paying for police to work in Salem-Keizer schools.

Many commenters highlighted the “school-to-prison” pipeline for people of color they believe is caused by the presence of police in schools. The American Civil Liberties Union has said in published national reports that students of color are especially vulnerable to racial bias and inequitable treatment inside schools by police.

Tony Villaneda, a 17-year-old who attends North Salem High School, said he has been attending school board meetings for three years, but has not seen change. He described for the board members the realities of living with racial profiling.

“When I was 12, I was stopped by a police officer. They pulled guns on me. They detained me and tried to find something to get me in trouble. They asked questions to see if I was a gang member. Ever since then, my life has changed,” Villaneda said. “Education and police don’t belong together.”

Some commenters acknowledged the need to increase safety in schools after more than two decades of mass shootings, but dismissed claims that school resource officers prevent school shootings. The alternative, they recommended, was to divert money earmarked for police to pay for counseling, culturally proficient staff, tutors, mental health support and smaller classrooms.

Police presence in schools expanded significantly in the early 2000s following high-profile school shootings. By 2010, about half of U.S. public schools had an assigned police officer, according to an Arizona State University report.

Salem-Keizer has contracts with the Salem Police Department, the Keizer Police Department and the Marion County Sheriff’s Office to station 11 officers and deputies at district schools. Six of those officers and deputies are based at each of the district’s six high schools. The other five are assigned to one or two local middle schools.

The contracts cost the district $963,778 so far this school year, district spokeswoman Lillian Govus said. It’s a fraction of the district budget, less than one-tenth of one percent, but would be enough to hire about eight additional counselors for schools.

The proposed cost for the policing contract for the 2020-21 budget was just over $1 million and encompasses the city of Salem, the city of Keizer and Marion County.

Chairperson Marty Heyen voted to support the motion to postpone budget action until June 23, but said she hopes in the next two weeks misinformation about school resource officers can be cleared up, like rumors that they are connected to deportation. She said that is untrue.

“I hope people can get to the truth of what the role of the SRO does,” Heyen said. “I have received so many emails in favor of SROs about how these individuals have saved the lives of students who were having troubles. These are not like the officer who pulled you over for speeding. These officers have relationships with the students.”

Board member Danielle Bethell said she has also received numerous emails supporting the school resource officers.

“People aren’t perfect. People do make mistakes, and we need to be having those community conversations and building relationships,” Bethell said. “And we need to have proactive leadership in our district and our law enforcement to make sure we’re bridging those gaps.”

Levi Hererra-Lopez, who runs Mano a Mano Family Center, Salem’s oldest Latino community organization, testified that he feels the issue personally.

“I just have a lot of emotions right now. I know that there are some people out there in this country who think that this is because of what’s going on right now, but this goes back to the entire history of the country,” Hererra-Lopez said. “I’ve been in Salem for almost 30 years now. And I have that much time worth of stories that are the same as everything that’s been shared.”

Board member Satya Chandragiri responded that he is also feeling overwhelmed.

“I don’t believe that postponing two weeks is going to bring down emotions sufficiently, that we’ll have clarity on this matter.” He said. “It is a very painful matter. Are we just going to give our community two weeks more of sharing their emotions? This has to be a little bit longer conversation and we have to give the community a chance to speak. What is going to be accomplished in two weeks?” 

Perry said delaying the budget approval is a respectful way to address concerns. 

“What I want you to know and the community to know is the SRO conversation is not dependent on whether you adopt or do not adopt the budget," she told the board. "This budget would allow me or you to make a decision about the SRO contract at a later time.”

Perry said she is committed to having community conversations over the next two weeks.

“I am not promising I will get to every person, including the people who have been silenced, in two weeks,” Perry said. “But I can promise you that we will get some work done.”

Correction: This article originally misspelled Tony Villaneda's last name.

Reporter Rachel Alexander contributed to this report. To contact Salem Reporter, send an email to [email protected]

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Hundreds call on Salem-Keizer to end contracts for police in schools

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