Lack of security resources hinders school safety

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For junior and actor Aidan Kent, October 30 seemed to be a typical Wednesday night rehearsal– up until around 6 pm. He and the cast of Humanicana, one of the student-written plays that premiered at Lincoln’s 16th Annual New Works Festival, were rehearsing in the auditorium when a mortar firework was set off by an unknown Lincoln student. 

“I saw something fly into the auditorium and it started to smoke,” says Kent, describing the incident. “My friends and our director were able to calm me down. We then exited the building and waited for the smoke to clear.”

Though no one was seriously hurt and the auditorium remains intact, it was the latest example of a major preventable incident occurring on school grounds. 

On November 5, an unidentified man walked into a geometry classroom; before that, security guard Stan Caples had to escort a trespasser off of the Lincoln campus. 

“We are blessed to have a really solid, capable security staff,” says Principal Peyton Chapman. “Things would be so much worse if people like [Caples] weren’t here to rush into burning bathrooms, like what happened last year. The issue is that they’re paid to work eight hours a day, and we’re open for 17.”

Indeed, PPS only mandates that security staff, including trained administrators like Chapman, be at work for a certain number of hours every day. 

“The number of Campus Security Agents vary from campus to campus,” says Molly Emmons, Director of PPS Security Services. “Ideally, we would have five at each of our high schools […] currently, we have two to three.”

This has forced Lincoln’s admin team to evaluate their coverage not only of the building itself, but of the times that the building is open, so as to ensure as many events as possible get covered.

“I’m a night person,” says Chapman. “[Vice Principal] McGee generally is too, while [Vice Principal] Wadkins and [Vice Principal] Brida will get here hours, sometimes, before I do. And that’s important when we’re thinking about… who’s going to cover a certain event, who’s going to make sure all the bases are covered. Because hypothetically, we could all just walk out at 4:30.”

In the event that administrators and security staff are absent from a PPS building, the responsibility for ensuring students’ security falls upon extracurricular advisors and coaches. New Works director Matthew B. Zrebski, a longtime Lincoln guest director, followed protocol to a T, ushering students out of the building immediately. According to Chapman, however, not every Lincoln extracurricular advisor is as “well-equipped” with such a “breadth of experience.”

According to Emmons, PPS does not currently have any official policies on security, only providing “security-related guidance pushed out to all campuses”– a confusing dilemma for non-staff who aren’t necessarily aware of said guidelines.

“I definitely feel more unsafe knowing I could be attacked at any second,” says Kent. “We need more safety provisions. [Lincoln is] so hard on cracking down on headphones,  but don’t even consider the fact that a student could… have a weapon. Like a firework. Or a gun.”

Administrators argue that it’s not so simple. Portland Public Schools have faced a myriad of budget cuts annually for ten years, a trend echoing a national defunding of public education. At the same time, however, violence in schools has escalated dramatically, with 44 percent of high schools reporting a violent and/or disruptive incident in the 2016-17 school year according to the National Center for Education Statistics, compared to 18 percent in 2009.

“It’s a dilemma principals have to face,” says Chapman. “Do you find room in your budget to hire more security staff, and lay off a teacher instead? Or cut back on classes and activities? Things like the Student Success Act [passed in May 2019 by the Oregon Legislature] are designed to provide us for funds with things like this. And we need the funds now more than ever.”

Emmons is confident that the district will find a solution to the problem.

“Having safe schools is a top priority,” notes Emmons. “Over the past several years the district has completed incremental upgrades to increase safety on our campuses […] I believe the district will complete these investments.”

Chapman believes that the security budget should be doubled, as soon as possible.

“We are privileged to have people like [security guard] Frank [Acosta] who are willing to stay so late for every football game… but it’s unfair to them, and to admin, and to students, to have to compensate for a lack of movement on such an important issue.”