After hiatus, Washougal police back in schools

District leaders looking at ways to expand school resource officer program

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Washougal Police Department officer Kelly Anderson, the Washougal School District's school resource officer, greets students entering Washougal High School on Feb. 18. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

After a one-year hiatus, Washougal police have returned to local schools.

The partnership between the Washougal School District and Washougal Police Department, which provides a school resource officer (SRO) at Washougal High School as well as other schools in the district, ran strong from 2006 to 2018, but waned during the 2018-19 school year.

“(The absence of the SRO) was due to the number of vacancies we had and the need to pull the SRO back to the line until we could get staffing levels back up,” said Washougal city manager David Scott.

But city and school leaders reinstated the program for the 2019-20 school year. Now,  they hope they can expand and enhance the SRO’s role inside Washougal schools.

“The more we can get our SRO in the classrooms, the better, but we want it to fit with what’s going on so that it’s natural,” said Aaron Hansen, assistant superintendent for Washougal schools. “Take current world problems and civics classes, for example – what could his role be there? And last year we brought in state patrol officers and a driving under the influence (DUI) mobile unit to the high school campus. The health students were able to visit with the officers and tour the DUI unit. Those activities happened to fit in with the health curriculum. We want to look at what students are studying and how we could incorporate or integrate something that involves our SRO.”

Washougal police officer Kelly Anderson is the district’s SRO this school year. His role is to prevent crime in the schools and help keep students and school staff and visitors safe.

“It’s a unique position,” Anderson, a 1991 Washougal High graduate, said. “I’ve been a patrol officer for 15 years, so to step out of my element has kind of (presented) a learning curve, and I’m trying to figure out my role in a school setting. But it’s been very rewarding. I graduated from Washougal High School. My children have graduated from Washougal High School. It’s a very cool thing to be in that mentor role — to maybe help the future generation and be a positive influence.”

Anderson spends most of his time at Washougal High, but also visits and responds to calls at Gause, Hathaway and Columbia River Gorge elementary schools and Jemtegaard Middle School on a regular basis. Situations that require law enforcement at Cape Horn-Skye Elementary and Canyon Creek Middle schools are handled by Skamania County police officers.

“Just being visible is the biggest thing,” Anderson said. “I’m in the hallways during passing time to deter any kind of incident, or available if kids need to talk to somebody. I feel I’m a very approachable person, so in that way it’s kind of easy to connect with kids. I’m open to talking to any kid about anything, regardless if it’s a criminal matter or not.”

Students and families see Anderson in front of the high school most mornings, and again in the parking lot at lunchtime.

“After school I’ll be present to help with traffic leaving, students walking, that kind of stuff, and to be a visible deterrent for any bad behavior,” Anderson said.

Angela Hancock, a member of the Washougal school board and mother of two Washougal students, said she has heard great things about Anderson from the high school students.

“They really feel comfortable having the officer in the schools on a regular basis to build those relationships,” Hancock said. “When I learned they assigned (Anderson), I was excited. He is super approachable and has a great reputation, and the kids like him; they can go to him for anything. I think he’s a perfect fit for that position. I know last year it was a little concerning to not have an SRO, so I’m really glad to have one again.”

Police department leaders view the SRO program as a way of proactively building relationships with community members, according to Washougal Police Sergeant Zane Freschette.

“Our goal here is to not just have students be able to see a police officer, but to be able to see an officer that they’re familiar with, that they’re comfortable with over time,” said Freschette, who acts as a liaison between the police department and school district to help guide the SRO program.

That trust has already been established, according to the school district’s student representatives.

Washougal High junior Briahna Ruth recently told the Washougal school board about Anderson’s role in the November 2019 Target Zero Safe Driving Task Force event, during which Anderson gave Dutch Bros. Coffee gift cards to Washougal High students wearing seat belts.

“I heard so many positive (comments) from that,” Ruth said. “I want to thank (Anderson) for always being there at school because he’s really helpful to us.”

Washougal High senior Maliyah Veale said the SRO makes her feel more at ease at school.

“I feel a lot more comfortable being in an atmosphere with him. I know a lot of kids feel more comfortable now that he’s there. I know a lot of kids aren’t ditching school anymore. It’s helping a lot with the attendance at our school. It’s setting a good example,” Veale said.

Cory Chase, a Washougal school board member and a Port of Portland police officer, is a “vocal advocate” of the program.

“It’s something that I’m very passionate about,” Chase said. “I think it is important to have that presence in our schools. … I’m hoping that by doing some of the things that we’re doing now — building this program, building these relationships — that we’re laying a foundation and setting a road map for the future to build a really strong program that can sustain itself for a long time in this community.”

The number of sworn police officers in our schools has climbed over the past decade. The National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2017 that the number of U.S. schools with a security presence — nearly 60 percent of schools — had jumped 42 percent in 10 years.

But while advocates of police in schools point to feelings of safety and security, recent studies have shown the SRO program can be detrimental to students of color, with black students more than twice as likely as white students to receive a referral to law enforcement or be subject to a school-related arrest.

Les Brown, the WSD’s communications and information technology director, said the district hasn’t received any complaints about the Washougal SROs.

“We are sensitive to concerns raised by students of color,” Brown said. “We’re working hard to build relationships with them and their families. This is one of the reasons we think it is important to have an SRO who is relationship-oriented and is working to have students get to know law enforcement as ‘real people.’ We are working hard to build partnerships with our community that let us work together to collaboratively support students. Our SRO program is an example of this.”