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The choice of a controversial former sheriff from Wisconsin to speak at a conference of Oregon school resource officers is drawing ire from some police reform advocates and others surprised that an outspoken critic of the Black Lives Matter movement would get such a public platform.

David A. Clarke, who resigned as Milwaukee County sheriff in 2017, has supported defunding schools, railed against coronavirus safeguards such as mask mandates and amplified conspiracy theories about billionaire philanthropist George Soros having his “fingerprints all over” student activism for gun control by survivors of the shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. He also has criticized school districts for having “no will” to “protect these kids.”

Clarke, who is Black, has consistently referred to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations for civil rights and against police bias and brutality as “Black Lies Matter.” He once said the movement would “join forces with ISIS.”

In recent weeks, he has defended the Proud Boys, calling the prosecution of some of the group’s leaders on sedition charges in the U.S. Capitol insurrection an “abuse of power.” He also criticized the U.S. Justice Department’s decision to investigate the police response to the Uvalde school shooter as improper.

Clark is among several keynote speakers asked to address the annual conference of the nonprofit Oregon School Resource Officers Association scheduled July 24-27 at the Mt. Hood Oregon Resort in Welches. The association supports police agencies that assign officers to school districts.

He’s set to talk about leadership and policing, according to the association.

Kathy Selvaggio, a community activist from West Linn, asked her city’s police chief not to send its school resource officer to the conference in protest of Clarke’s appearance. Selvaggio has sought changes in the city’s police department after West Linn paid $600,000 in February 2020 to settle a wrongful arrest suit filed by Portland resident Michael Fesser, who is Black.

“This person hardly seems like a role model for school resource officers who are dealing on a day-to-day basis with young people,” Selvaggio wrote to the police chief.

West Linn City Councilor Mary Baumgardner said she called an association official to urge him to cancel Clarke’s speech.

“I think (Clarke’s) rhetoric serves a confirmation bias by many in law enforcement,” Baumgardner said. “He’s a political firebrand. Everything I found about him was one thing worse than the last thing.”

In a letter that Willie Poinsette, president of the Lake Oswego community-based group Respond to Racism, sent to the town’s city manager and school superintendent last week, she shared how some students of color in Lake Oswego already are uncomfortable with school resource officers in their schools and some feel targeted by them. She urged the district not to send its school resource officers to the conference.

“Imagine how our Lake Oswego students will feel if they learn that Lake Oswego SROS (school resource officers), educators, and administrators are spending time learning from a man who is openly biased and who openly has disdain for some of them,” she wrote. “How can students trust that the city and school have their best interest in their hearts if they simultaneously spend time subscribing to Clarke’s disregard for gun safety, the Black Lives Matter causes, and Black people in general? “

Lake Oswego City Manager Martha Bennett responded in writing that from what she looked up and learned about Clarke, he “certainly is a controversial public figure.”

But Bennett wrote that the city would never restrict someone from attending a conference “on the merits of only one speaker.” Further, she responded that often such conferences are where the school resource officers can learn about best practices and changes in laws that help them do their jobs more effectively.

Mike Jackson, a 16-year school resource officer for Medford police who serves as the association’s president, said he heard some people “aren’t crazy about Sheriff Clarke’s politics.”

He noted that Clarke isn’t the only keynote speaker and has been given two hours on the program, compared to others who are speaking for up to four to six hours. Clarke was selected by the group’s board because he’s a big supporter of police, Jackson said.

“We certainly as an organization do not identify with any particular political party or any ideology or philosophy,” Jackson said. “If a speaker was going to come in and promote any kind of lawlessness, we would not promote that.’’

Rick Puente, association vice president, said he spoke with Baumgardner and will share her concerns with the board.

“I think people get caught up on the political side of things and forget that he was a sheriff for a long time in leadership,” said Puente, who serves as public safety director for Beaverton School District. “He will be speaking on leading in chaotic times. Our goal is to focus on school safety.”

West Linn Police Chief Peter Mahuna said he doesn’t intend to stop West Linn’s school resource officer from attending the conference. Mahuna said other training topics planned will benefit the officer.

“I will give the officer permission to skip the presentation by Mr. Clarke if he chooses. If he chooses to attend the presentation, I will have a check in and follow up conversation with him,” Mahuna wrote to Selvaggio.

Clarke did not respond to phone or email messages seeking comment.

Portland police removed their resource officers from schools at the school district’s request in June 2020. Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said he wanted to use the money instead for more social workers, counselors and “culturally specific partnerships.”

At least 100 people are expected to attend the conference. Members include police, school administrators, juvenile justice officials and other school district staff.

Other keynote speakers at the conference are Molly Bradley Hudgens, a school counselor at a middle school in Tennessee who wrote a study on school shootings called “Recognizing Red Flags” and retired Dallas Police Officer Byron Boston, speaking about 21st century policing.

Other topics include information about Karly’s Law, named after a 3-year-old Corvallis girl who died from abuse. It requires police, medical providers and others to ensure children who have suspicious physical injuries receive medical attention within 48 hours.

— Maxine Bernstein

Email; 503-221-8212

Follow on Twitter @maxoregonian

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