School Resource Officer John Chamberlain uses handcuffs to restrain a 13-year-old student at Auburn Middle School in December 2019. Another student snapped a picture of the moment using a phone. Credit: Contributed

Around noon on Dec. 11, 2019, Christeena Lothrop received a text message from another parent at Auburn Middle School, asking if her son was OK. The text showed a picture of Lothrop’s then-13-year-old son, belly down on the floor of the school’s crowded cafeteria, with a police officer kneeling on either side of his back.

Lothrop would come to learn that her son, whom the Bangor Daily News has agreed not to name for this story, had cut the lunch line, cursed at teachers and refused their requests to follow them out of the cafeteria.

When her son rebuffed the vice principal’s requests to get up from his lunch seat, a teacher summoned Officer John Chamberlain, a member of the Auburn Police Department assigned to the school.

But Lothrop’s son only swore at the officer and refused to budge. Chamberlain used his foot to slide the boy’s chair away from the table. When he still wouldn’t move, Chamberlain grabbed the student’s torso to escort him from his seat, according to his police report and Lothrop’s description of the video footage of the scene. When the boy resisted again, Chamberlain wrote in the police report that he lost his balance and fell forward, forcing the pair to the ground.

Auburn School Resource Officer John Chamberlain escorts Christeena Lothrop’s 13-year-old son from the cafeteria in December 2019. Credit: Contributed

To end the struggle, the officer placed the student in handcuffs, Auburn Police Chief Jason Moen said in an interview. Dozens of other students watched as Chamberlain escorted their classmate out of the lunchroom with his hands behind his back. At least one student snapped photos with his phone.

The event distressed Lothrop as a parent, but it also raised questions about how Maine’s growing number of school-based police officers are trained, supervised and allowed to intervene in student behavior.

The use of force against students is rare, but unlike other states, Maine’s lack of oversight and regulation of school-based police officers makes it difficult for parents to trust their schools are following best practices. Those concerns are especially relevant to parents like Lothrop, whose children struggle with behavioral challenges that cause them to act out.

“I don’t think I ever saw a student in handcuffs,” said Rebekah Bickford, a Maine-based certified school psychologist and special education consultant who reviewed the event. “I’ve definitely never seen it in any of the typical public school settings. I can’t even imagine seeing that happen.”

Teachers and school administrators are bound by laws that describe when they are allowed to touch, restrain and seclude students. It’s an example of the many protections afforded to students, including those with disabilities, to ensure schools are therapeutic places that support their education.

But police officers assigned to schools, known as school resource officers, are trained differently than educators. They follow a different set of rules, and can wield the punitive powers of law enforcement to respond to student behavior.

It is unlikely that a teacher or school administrator would have had the legal justification to remove Lothrop’s son from the room, based on rules that bar educators from touching or restraining students unless there is a safety concern, according to Bickford.

“You cannot remove a student because he’s refusing to leave,” Bickford said. “Adults don’t like it when students don’t comply with directions, but here, it is not a safety concern.”

In the 18 months since her son was held down and handcuffed, Lothrop has repeatedly requested an explanation from Auburn school officials as to why a police officer forcibly restrained her son — an act that she and her attorney believe violated the special accommodations her son had in place because of his disabilities. Lothrop’s son has been diagnosed with severe anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. She transferred him to another school a week after he was held down because it scared him so badly that he no longer felt safe at Auburn Middle.

“My questions have always been the same. How, if you’re telling me that you followed a process, how did this process allow you to get to the end result that it did?” Lothrop said. “Their response to that question every time we asked was ‘your son has never come with us when we’ve asked him to. We didn’t know what else to do.’”

Auburn school officials declined to be interviewed.

Moen told the BDN that Chamberlain broke no police department policies when he restrained Lothrop’s son. Moen declined to make Chamberlain available for an interview but said it’s rare for an officer to handcuff a student at school, and it’s normally done for safety reasons.

Lothrop’s son, who was not arrested or charged with a crime, could have injured himself, the officer, or other students because he was flailing, Moen said.  

“Based on the officer’s training, he felt it was necessary to handcuff him,” he said, adding that Chamberlain received additional de-escalation training after the event.

In response to school shootings and heightened concern over student safety, the number of school resource officers has grown across the country, including in Maine. Following the Parkland massacre in 2018, the number of cops in Maine schools rose from 67 to 82, in more than 93 schools across 49 districts, according to a 2019 report by researchers at the University of Southern Maine’s Cutler Institute.

Meanwhile, the trend has drawn scrutiny. In Florida, an officer arrested and briefly jailed an 8-year-old with special needs, prompting a civil rights lawsuit. In Kentucky, a sheriff handcuffed two students with disabilities for breaking school rules. And in Maine’s largest city, the Portland Board of Education last summer voted to end its school resource officer program in the wake of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that roiled the country.

That decision came after organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine called on schools to remove police and instead invest in support such as social workers.

School resource officers are often beloved figures on campus, but the badge doesn’t make everyone feel safe, especially students from backgrounds where police aren’t always a welcome presence. Research shows that officers disproportionately arrest or use punitive tactics against students of color and students with disabilities, like Lothrop’s son.

The Cutler Institute study sought to provide a snapshot of Maine’s school resource officer programs. Other states have passed laws that require uniformity in training or standards of practice. Maine has not mandated any standards for how officers should be selected, trained and supervised, although the Maine Criminal Justice Academy is creating a voluntary certification program and the Maine Department of Education is developing training. Earlier this month, Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill requiring officers to complete “diversity, equity and inclusion training or implicit bias training.”

The way the programs are run varies widely in Maine, the Cutler Institute report found. Not all officers have received specialized training to work with students in addition to their standard police training.

“Training adherence was all over the place,” said George Shaler, who co-authored the study.

As of 2019, only nine states required officers to learn about special education students’ needs and protections, according to a report by Strategies For Youth, a non-profit policy and training organization dedicated to improving interactions between police and youth interactions.

In Auburn, school resource officers attend a specialized training put on by the The National Association of School Resource Officers. That training includes lessons on youth brain development and students with special needs, said Mo Canady, the organization’s executive director.

“If you’re working in a building with 1,000 students, that’s 1,000 developing brains,” Canady said. “Not every law enforcement officer is cut out to be an SRO. It’s the most unique assignment in law enforcement.”

Even with extra training, officers operate under the authority of the police department, and are empowered to intervene in ways that other adults in the school could not. Inevitably, that invites gray-area scenarios that have more serious implications for students who are more prone to conflict, like Lothrop’s son.

“Any time a student is put in handcuffs is tragic. That truly needs to be the last resort in any situation,” said South Berwick High School’s longtime school resource officer, Jeff Upton.

He sees the hybrid duties of his job as a strength, not a drawback, allowing him to mostly be a counselor to students while also performing a needed public safety job. Good officers use discretion that keeps the best interests of a student in mind, Upton said, who has sought extra training around working with adolescents.

He recalled a recent situation where a student’s behavior could have fallen under the definitions of disorderly conduct or assault, but instead of putting her in handcuffs or writing her a summons, the officer decided to let the student calm down in a room alone. She ended up back to class, he said.

Bickford trains educators in how to work with students with special needs, including in de-escalation techniques that are based on adolescent psychology and have been shown to reduce troublesome behavior. The best methods involve responding to students with patience, using language that gives them a sense of control, and avoiding any intervention that could make a student feel ashamed. Punishing a student is usually the least effective method, she said.

Some Maine schools have sought to clarify the role of an officer by entering into a written agreement with the local police department, which is a recommended best practice. These policies allow officials to hash out, for instance, when it is appropriate for an officer to intervene in student behavior or access confidential records, such as special education plans.

In Maine, those agreements vary from school to school, are often dated, or don’t exist at all, Schaler said, so they don’t always provide clear or relevant guidelines for how officers should approach sensitive situations or certain vulnerable students.

“If schools aren’t taking accountability and control over the role, it sets up an issue where they’re not ensuring their students’ rights are protected,” said Emma Bond, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

For example, Lothrop believes her son’s disability accommodations may have been violated as a result of Chamberlain’s use of force. When her son was in the fifth grade, the Auburn school district created a plan for him outlining how teachers and school officials will accommodate his disabilities to help him succeed in school. One provision in the plan says that her son should be reprimanded in private, since being chastised publicly tends to worsen his anxiety.

Law enforcement may play an important role in some school-related functions, such as helping districts perform threat-assessments to avoid planned acts of violence, but it’s unclear if those functions justify a full-time position stationed in the school, said Shaler. He has a difficult time understanding how officers spend their time. In interviews with them, “they really had a hard time telling me,” he said.

His study for the Cutler Institute did not measure the impact of school resource officers on Maine students because there’s so little information on their interactions. 

The report recommended that schools should track when students are handcuffed or placed under arrest, and collect information on their race and whether they had a specialized education plan. The same goes for activities that show officers are making schools safer.

“I believe in law enforcement,” Shaler said. “I just happen to be very skeptical of this initiative. It hasn’t demonstrated to me, through data, that it’s making a difference.”

Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.