As protests against police brutality have erupted across the country following the death of George Floyd, many school districts are reconsidering the use of school resource officers within school buildings.
The number of officers have steadily increased over the past two decades, partly as a response to school shootings. But many question whether they are effective. In Maine, residents in a number of communities are asking districts to reconsider the use of them.
At a Portland school board meeting last week, Victoria Parker read a letter that has been signed by hundreds of fellow parents, students and community members. Its message: that as protests call for policing reforms, the district should end the use of school resource officers.
“We want to stand with our black and brown youth who are pleading for this, who are out marching in the streets,” Parker said. “And they’re asking for real change. Real, systemic, deep-rooted change. And one of the areas we think that it’s important and imperative that it happens is within our educational system, and within our schools.”
The district currently has an arrangement for two officers based at Portland and Deering High Schools.
“Students have said that it’s not our specific police officers. It’s not the ones that are in their school. They’re not necessarily bad guys. But they don’t want to go to school and see a police officer with a gun walking down their halls because there is a lot of trauma around that,” she said.
Last year, a study commissioned by Maine’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Group looked at the use of school resource officers across the state. It found that officers performed a lot of different jobs, from school security to daily counseling and relationship-building. But the report also found that there was wide variation in how officers are used in schools, with little oversight from the state or local levels.
The study also cited figures from the ACLU, which found that “schools with police presence report 3.5 times more arrests than schools without” and that “black students are three times more likely than white students to be arrested at school.” In recent weeks, districts in several major cities, including Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon, have decided to end contracts with their local police departments.
In Maine, the effort has spread beyond Portland to Sanford, where 15-year-old Josh Wood launched a petition earlier this month to remove school resource officers from his town’s schools and instead invest in more support service positions such as counselors and psychologists.
“Which is why I started this petition locally. It’s a campaign that’s obviously been going on nationally as well,” Wood said. “But we can reallocate our resources somewhere more productive.”
The Portland school board appears likely to take up the issue. School Board Chair Roberto Rodriguez said he and his colleagues have been considering changes to the school resource officer program for almost a year. And he said that while officers are well-liked by many students in the district, he feels the money could be better spent on social workers, counselors or on more support for immigrant students and families.
“We believe, and I strongly believe, that investing money that has a direct effect on those disparities is a much better use of our funds than say, for example, the use of school resource officers,” Rodriguez said.
Another board member, Adam Burk, echoed that position in an interview. But at a meeting on Wednesday, board member Marnie Morrione said she did not want to rush a vote, and that she would like to hear from students, staff and other members of the school community before voting on the issue.
“In light of all the tragic events that have happened, and the national reaction, I personally would not feel comfortable, at all, in a matter of a week, making a big decision,” Morrione said.
Other school leaders in Maine have said they have not heard of similar calls to reconsider SROs in their own districts. In South Portland, Superintendent Ken Kunin said that the district’s officers play several important roles, such as ensuring school security and building relationships with students and staff. The officers don’t get involved in routine discipline, but do offer support if kids need help, he said.
“It’s something that is a support and a help in our setting at this point. But we always need to engage in reflection and conversation to make sure it stays there. And also, to make sure we continue to grow restorative practices,” he said. “And that’s where we’ve invested a lot of time and effort and energy.”
In Lewiston, Superintendent Todd Finn said the district is already working on several efforts to improve disparities, by adding new staff members focused on social-emotional learning and doing more to connect with families. He said he views school resource officers as an important part of the district’s community-building work, as he said they serve as a mentor and caring adult for many students.
“We also run the risk of eliminating education, mentoring and relationship-building pieces,” Finn said. “And eventually we’ll create a culture where our kids, these kids only see these deputies as law enforcement. Which is actually counteractive to what we’re actually trying to do.”
In Portland, school officials said Wednesday that they would likely begin discussing the issue next week. And no matter what decision is made on school resource officers, the district plans to spend the next few months looking more broadly at the issue of law enforcement in schools.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.