PORTLAND, Maine — A majority of the school board expressed early support for a resolution that would remove police presence from public schools in Maine’s largest city.
Supporters of a campaign to remove school resource officers — armed, uniformed police officers who work in schools — drowned out opposition during several hours of public comment on Tuesday, punctuating a remote workshop at which most members of the nine-member school board expressed early support for a resolution that would end their use in Portland.
The local effort to remove police from public schools and replace them with support professionals like social workers and counselors is part of a broader national movement to advance racial justice and combat structural inequities.
It is one of several policy areas in which Portland city officials are being pressed to reduce the role of policing in civic life as part of a national uprising against systemic racism and police brutality. The City Council may vote to ban the use of facial recognition by police and other city employees later this summer and is reviewing recent police conduct next week.
School officials want more time to consider whether to allow police officers to record students using body-worn cameras inside schools.
Only two of 17 public schools in Portland — Portland and Deering high schools — used resource officers in the most recent school year. School board member Micky Bondo said that she believed the issue wasn’t about individual officers at the schools, but a broader issue of overpolicing.
“I just don’t see the individual [officers as a problem], but I see the system that has been failing students of color and economically disadvantaged students for years,” Bondo said.
A 2019 study from the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service found that “there has been a sharp increase in juvenile arrests since the deployment of SROs” nationwide, and the effect is “especially pronounced for students of color, students with learning disabilities, and students from other vulnerable populations who may be socially marginalized or economically disadvantaged.”
A researcher on that study, George Shaler, told the Bangor Daily News last fall that the officers were “really good at being law enforcement, but sometimes you need a nuanced approach to dealing with young people.”
Portland’s resolution says that the presence of officers in schools lead to “developmentally normal adolescent behaviors previously handled through school disciplinary channels increasingly labeled criminal, passing the responsibility for responding from the school to law enforcement.”
Experts are divided on whether putting such officers on school campuses will make the schools safer or frighten children and lead to more arrests.
School board member Sarah Thompson suggested that the board not “rush the resolution through,” wanting broader community input on a resolution carrying language she called “divisive.” She said she wants to hear from social workers and then from police on “what they are or aren’t doing.”
The board heard public comment for several hours, with proponents of removing resource officers outnumbering dissenting voices at least 10 to 1.
“The feeling of safety and actual safety resulting from an SRO is directly connected to a student’s race, and we need to ask the questions of whose safety is being prioritized, and at what cost, and at whose cost,” said Andrea Berry of Maine Initiatives, a nonprofit social justice foundation.
The board will take a final vote on the issue June 30. School board member Emily Figdor asked Superintendent Xavier Botana what additional support the schools would add in lieu of resource officers if the resolution passes.
“We don’t have a system in place, so that would be something for us to do,” Botana said.