When Portland Police officers used a Taser on a 16-year-old Roosevelt High School student two years ago, Skye Skalbeck -- who is about to embark on her senior year there -- wanted to do something about it.
“Kids were really upset, but nobody knew what they could do about it,” Skalbeck said.
Then a sophomore, Skalbeck got involved with the Youth and the Law project – a collaborative project between schools and community groups intended to educate young people about their rights in interactions with police.
The project has produced two publications so far, and the third – which publishes this week – is a comic book by and for youth: a small group of students in the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization’s SummerWorks program is completing production this week after eight weeks of research, discussion with community groups and writing and drawing.
The book will be distributed to incoming freshman throughout Portland Public Schools this fall.
The comic features five different scenarios youth may be likely to encounter with law enforcement (including one scenario involving an interaction with a school resource officer).
The project is also developing training manuals to train youth and their parents on their rights, and organizer Joann Hardesty said if funding becomes available organizers would like to hold training sessions throughout the year for youth and their parents to understand their rights when interacting with law enforcement.
Students have researched laws, spoken with lawyers, talked to community groups representing different communities of color and participated in ride-alongs with Portland Police officers. Hardesty also said the Portland Police Bureau has made a donation to help with printing expenses, though The Skanner was not able to confirm the amount of the contribution with the bureau.
“One of the things that’s most wonderful about this project is finding talent we didn’t know we had,” said Joann Hardesty, who has been meeting with the students regularly at Portland Community College’s Cascade campus. “We have students who didn’t think they were artists but they actually are.”
Anthony Sylvester, a recent graduate of Roosevelt who will head to Pomona College in California and is interested in studying psychology and political science, not only created the artwork for the comic book but also created some computer animation for an online training module. Hardesty said when he got involved with the project, he didn’t think of himself as an artist.
Hardesty said every student has had a role in every aspect of production, and all students have been present at meeting with groups like the Latino Network or the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon to discuss their concerns and stories about interacting with police.
Students have also brought their own perspectives on policing into bear during discussions.
“I appreciated seeing things through police’s eyes and being a voice for the Somalian community, which aren’t always heard on issues like this,” said Faiza Jama, a sophomore at Roosevelt, who plans to attend a historically black college or university and eventually return to Somalia to practice medicine.
Some students have even changed their career goals after participating in the project.
Tanya Tiradio, who is in her second year at Portland Community College, plans to transfer to Portland State University and join its cadet program to go into law enforcement. She hadn’t previously been interested in law enforcement, but the ride-along she participated in as part of the project changed her mind. She started to see things from officers’ perspectives and saw how most approach their jobs.
“Our goal is not to paint all police officers as bad. It’s for young people to have tools when they interact with police,” Hardesty told The Skanner.
Nonetheless, said Kate McPherson, the publications director at Roosevelt who has been working on the project, the project came about in part because so many community members, especially in communities of color, have anxiety about interacting with police.
“There’s a lot of fear,” especially with increased awareness of police use of force nationwide McPherson told The Skanner, and a need for education and training materials.
Sylvester told The Skanner he was proud to be part of a project that connected with larger issues of systemic racism and oppression.
“This issue with law enforcement is not just a solitary issue,” he said. “It’s part of a bigger issue with oppression and we get to be part of helping with that.”