HERMON, Maine — A controversial proposal to post armed police officers at the town’s three public schools is receiving mixed reviews from residents.
Town Councilor Tony Reynolds said he’s not hearing much community support for the concept.
“From just talking to people, I think they’re kind of nervous about putting an officer with a gun in the schools,” he said Tuesday. “Most people would rather see a school resource officer [who would be shared by the town’s elementary, middle and high schools].”
Kendra Raymond, a mother of four children — three of them school-aged — has a different take.
“I think it’s a pretty good idea,” she said. “If you’d have asked me a couple of years ago, I would have thought it was crazy.” The school shootings in Newtown, Conn., changed that, said Raymond, who is heavily involved in Hermon Elementary School activities. “Newtown is not that far from here.”
“I know a lot of parents are talking about this. I’ve talked to some other parents and from what I can gather, they also support what I feel. I haven’t heard anything negative about it,” Raymond said. “Even though we’re in Maine, you can’t be too safe.”
Kim Nichols, the mother of twin teenaged boys and a substitute teacher, is not so sure.
“I think it definitely is a difficult discussion,” said Nichols, who grew up in Newtown, where she attended the town’s other elementary school, Middle Gate Elementary. She noted that in some ways, Hermon is a lot like her hometown, which was devastated by the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary.
“I really do support having [a school resource officer] at the high school, someone who can connect with the kids and interact with them and keep an eye on things,” she said. “But having someone standing at the door with a gun?”
The community’s debate over posting armed police in its schools began shortly after the Dec. 14 shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School ,that left 27 people dead, most of them children.
The very next Monday, Hermon businessman Randy Gardner and his wife, Laura, launched 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.
“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,” Gardner said last month when asked about his school security campaign.
Gardner this week was very specific in stating what he wants to see done with regard to school security — “full-time, sworn, armed police.”
As he sees it, the in-school officers not only could serve as a deterrent to potential shooters but also could discourage other problems, including fights and drug abuse.
“I’d like to see them [school officials] do this voluntarily,” he said, adding that he is not giving up his effort to get armed police in schools and is prepared to work to bring the matter to referendum, if necessary.
“In my opinion, this should have been done the day the kids got back from [the holiday] vacation,” he said.
The two broached the idea with town and school officials in early January. After meeting with Gardner and Pottle, Superintendent Patricia Duran formed a 12-member panel charged with exploring what Hermon can do to make its school safer.
The group held its first meeting on Jan. 22. Members include residents, school committee members, town councilors and the principals of Hermon’s elementary, middle and high schools.
Members went over existing and planned security measures, resources available to help assess the school department’s preparedness and made plans to research resources available to schools, she said.
“The committee is looking at what other schools are doing and considering multiple options to meet the needs of the community. They will eventually make a recommendation to the school committee and, if appropriate, the Town Council,” Duran said.
The group’s next meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Hermon Odd Fellows Hall on Billings Road.
Dr. John Lorenz, a psychiatrist who lives in Hermon, is among the committee members. He said that while it’s too early to say what measures the group will recommend, “we can say that the community is very interested in having safe schools.
“But it’s not just, ‘How do we react to something that has occurred?’ It’s about prevention without turning schools into armed camps.”
As Lorenz sees it, school security requires a comprehensive approach.
“I’ll say I give credit to Mrs. Duran for taking the bull by the horns and getting the community involved.” he said. “There are huge issues — cultural issues, community issues. How do we make kids feel safe, not just physically but mentally as well.”
Lorenz noted that Hermon, like many other communities in Maine, is facing revenue losses and cuts in state funding. It also faces some tough decisions.
“If you add a (police) position, what do you cut out? Do you give up football or art classes or do we raise taxes? These are important questions, community questions,” he said.
Compounding the difficulty on the prevention front is shrinking funding for mental health resources that could help school officials identify “at risk students, either as potential perpetrators or potential victims,” Lorenz said.
Gardner said he would have liked to have served on the committee but was not selected. He is, however, being kept in the loop. He attended the first session and plans to continue monitoring the group’s progress.
“It’s a bit frustrating. I’m a businessman. If I think something needs to be done, I’m a businessman. It seems like the wheels of government grind really slow. In the face of it, the kids remain at risk. We don’t have until [the year] 2020.”
Gardner believes there is a lot of support for his concept.
“I have heard quite a bit from folks in the community,” he said. He added, however, that “people seem supportive but they don’t show up at the meeting.”
Duran said last month that some steps already have been taken toward better security since the December school shooting, citing additional security cameras as one example. She declined to get into specifics because doing so would make the measures less effective.
Parents said this week that another security change has been made: During the school day, all the doors at Hermon Elementary remain locked. No one is allowed to enter until they are buzzed in by staff.
“They have to be able to see you and if they don’t recognize you, you have to identify yourself. I’m very happy with that,” Raymond said. “It was a big change, but the extra trouble it takes to get buzzed in is really not that bad if it means students are safer.”