PORTLAND, Maine — Police officers will no longer be embedded inside Portland public schools.
In an early morning vote concluding a marathon meeting, Portland’s school board voted not to renew a memorandum of understanding with the Portland Police Department for the 2020-21 school year, ending an agreement that contracted school resource officers — armed, uniformed police officers known as SROs — in Portland and Deering high schools.
Reserving judgment for months before coming out in support of the measure, Superintendent Xavier Botana said that he “concluded that the roles and values the district ascribes to school resource officers is the result of a culture that prioritizes order over learning and the sense of safety over the trauma of others.” The decision to remove police from schools was “set against the backdrop of the movement to recognize the role of law enforcement as an institution perpetuating white supremacist structures in our institutions, including our schools and larger society,” Botana said.
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The 7-2 vote advanced a resolution the School Board heard earlier this month, with a new amendment by Botana to use funds saved by the elimination of the resource officer program on safety, restorative practices, trauma-sensitive practices and unmet equity needs in the school district.
The local effort to remove police from public schools and replace them with support professionals such as social workers and counselors is part of a broader national movement to advance racial justice and combat structural inequities.
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.”
Debate was less imbalanced at Tuesday night’s meeting than it was two weeks ago, when public commenters overwhelmingly supported the removal of resource officers at a rate of more than 10 to 1. Board member Emily Figdor said that she received 482 emails from constituents on the subject, with only 93 in favor of retaining police officers in schools.
Violet Sulka-Hewes, a recent graduate of the Portland school system, said that there are other ways that policing affect students, such as constant surveillance and the criminalization of so-called behavioral issues “like tardiness, disrespect and disruption which are very often racialized.”
The board rejected a countermeasure from member Sarah Thompson that would have renewed the contract with police, gathering community stakeholders to review the efficacy of the program.
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Experts are divided on whether putting such officers on school campuses will make the schools safer or frighten children and lead to more arrests.
Elizabeth Donato, who has rallied with the Black Lives Matter movement in Portland, said that those making process-based appeals to delay action weren’t listening to people whose voices have been oppressed.
“The reason why you feel comfortable with this amendment is because of the senseless killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, etc., by the police,” Donato said. “Why is your response to the killings of Black people by the police more policing?”
Board member Anna Trevorrow called Thompson’s resolution “a deliberative approach that’s informed by research” that she might have supported months ago, but voted against it.
“It’s become apparent to me how overdue systemic change is,” Trevorrow said.
Botana said a plan the district would continue to address safety needs as needed, including contracting police officers for appropriate security at sporting and other events. The district would also train social workers and other staff to respond to urgent in-school matters and determine which events required calls to police.
At least 75 other school resource officers patrol Maine schools.
School Board Chair Roberto Rodriguez hoped that school officials might soon rebuild trust after taking decisive action on a hot-button issue.
“Obviously, none of us came into this to harm our relationships or interfere with the coherency of the district, but those are the unintended consequences of this process,” Rodriguez said.