Pair of Hermon businessmen want armed police posted in local schools

Posted Jan. 16, 2013, at 8:31 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 17, 2013, at 3:47 p.m.

HERMON, Maine — Shocked by last month’s shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School, two local businessmen are working to persuade their elected officials to post armed police at Hermon’s elementary, middle and high schools.

“It happened in a small town about the size of Hermon and I’m sure that those folks never thought it would happen to them,” Randy Gardner, owner of Gardner Construction Enterprises, said Wednesday of the Dec. 14 massacre in Newtown, Conn., which left 27 people dead, including the gunman.

The very next Monday, Gardner and his wife, Laura, were out in front of Hermon Elementary School with a petition calling for a permanent police presence in the town’s schools. He also enlisted the help of his friend and fellow businessman, Barry Pottle, who owns Pottle Transportation Inc.

The two broached the idea with town councilors on Jan. 4 and discussed it with school committee members Monday night, Gardner said.

“What we proposed to both the town council and the school committee is to put full-time, armed officers in all three of the schools,” Gardner said Wednesday.

As he sees it, the school officers not only could serve as a deterrent to potential shooters but also could discourage other problems, including fights and drug abuse.

“We just believe that we need to be proactive in this,” Pottle said. “I think the response has been very positive. I don’t have any kids in the school system, but I think having a resource officer in each school would be fantastic.”

And the practice is fairly common, with about 60 school resource police officers assigned throughout Maine.

Hermon’s school superintendent said she is willing to consider multiple ideas to increase security but notes that the final decision needs to meet the needs of the community.

“We want to protect our students. I can’t imagine going down to the fire station and trying to find my kid and my kid’s not there,” Pottle said, referring to the gathering place set for the Sandy Hook students and their families after the shootings.

“I think there’s a lot of good arguments for it. It would provide an immediate response if, God forbid, we had an incident,” Gardner said, noting that if there had been a police officer at the Connecticut elementary school, emergency medical personnel likely would have been allowed to enter sooner, and that could have saved lives.

“Something had to be done,” said Gardner, the grandfather of one Hermon elementary school student and two future ones. Though he says he’s not a political person, he felt moved to take action.

“I am not an NRA member and I don’t have a gun control agenda,” Gardner said. “I’m not that guy. I’ve discussed it with everyone I’ve come in contact with. If somebody has a better idea, I’m all for it.

“The problem is I want something to be done before it’s too late. We need to strike while the iron is hot, while [the Sandy Hook tragedy] is fresh in our minds,” he said.

Hermon School Superintendent Patricia Duran agrees.

“I don’t think this is something to sit on,” she said Wednesday. “You can’t educate children if they don’t feel safe.”

“Truly, we’ve been very, very fortunate [to not have experienced shootings and similar violent acts in Hermon schools]. I do believe it could happen anywhere. I don’t believe we’re immune to it,” she said. “That’s what’s so scary about it; we all know that there’s nothing that’s going to make it 100 percent safe.”

Duran said Wednesday that she is putting a group together to look for ways to improve safety at the schools.

Group members will include residents, school committee members, town councilors and the principals of Hermon’s elementary, middle and high schools. The group will begin meeting in the next week or two, she said.

“We’ll put our heads together to see what we can do,” she said. “If you bring together minds that are all interested in protecting our children and our staff, I have no doubt that they will come up with changes we can make and ideas to implement.”

In the meantime, Duran is looking into what grants and other funding sources she might be able to access to cover part or all of the cost of beefing up security.

Duran said that some steps already have been taken toward that end since the December school shooting but declined to get into specifics because doing so would make them less effective.

“I will tell you that we’ve made some changes,” she said, citing additional security cameras as one example. School officials also have assured parents that a safety plan is in place.

Town Manager Roger Raymond said Wednesday that he has met with Duran to discuss school security. He said that decisions regarding school security measures “should be based on what is right for the community, not based on emotion” and should be made in a way that is financially reasonable.

Pottle acknowledged the resource officer idea might be a tough sell for some in the community.

Asked how much it would cost to post police in Hermon schools, he said, “I don’t think cost is an issue. If you lost a child, would cost be a factor? How would we feel if we don’t do something that should have been done? We just have to find common ground.”

Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said there are about 60 school resource officers working in Maine. Among the communities that have them are Bangor, Brewer, Brunswick, Sanford, South Berwick, Skowhegan and Wells-Ogunquit. Some of those positions are funded by federal grants while the salaries for others are built into municipal budgets.

Like many small communities, Hermon does not have a police department. Its police services are provided through a contract with Penobscot County. Sheriff Glenn Ross pegged the cost of employing a full-time deputy at $60,000 to $70,000 a year, which includes benefits.

“It’s not cheap — and then you run into the problem of what to do when school’s not in session,” Ross said Wednesday. “You could do it with part-time people, but it’s hard” to get them to stay. “There’s no quick answers.”

CORRECTION:

A previous version of this story contained an error. Superintendent Patricia Duran said she is willing to consider multiple ideas to increase security but notes that the final decision must meet the needs of the community. She has not taken a position on the police proposal.

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