School Resource Officer Ken Strout of the Lewiston Police Department gets a hug from Joanna Mwangaza, 8, as students from Gov. James B. Longley Elementary School walk to their new school, Robert V. Connors Elementary School, in June 2019. Strout was assigned to the new elementary school for the 2019-20 school year. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal file photo

LEWISTON — A proposal to reduce the number of police officers in local schools and to end the DARE program will be taken up by the School Committee later this month.

Committee member Kiernan Majerus-Collins brought the issue to the committee June 22.

“I believe it is time to end the permanent presence of police officers in our schools,” he read from a prepared statement.

He said the issue was a systemic one and not a question of individual officers.

“Some of the most compassionate, caring and empathetic people in our Police Department choose to become school resource officers,” he said.

He appealed to the “broader question” of the appropriateness of having uniformed officers in schools.

“Students and their families tell me the presence of police in our schools makes them feel unsafe,” Majerus-Collins said. “Our students are not criminals, and they don’t deserve to be made to feel as though they are.”

Majerus-Collins said this week he will offer a proposal, likely on July 13, for a vote by the committee.

His motion will call for reducing the number of school resource officers from four to three, prohibiting the permanent presence of police at any elementary school and ending the “ineffective and outdated” Drug Abuse Resistance Education program by the start of the 2020-21 school year.

Money budgeted for the fourth officer would be used to hire a restorative justice coordinator at Lewiston High School.

Restorative justice is a way to deal with crimes by organizing meetings between victims and offenders. Such meetings can include members of the wider community.

Majerus-Collins said his “moderate, compromise” proposal would allow school officials to monitor the effect of a reduced police presence over the coming school year, and to potentially increase support for further reductions.

School districts in Denver, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Portland, Maine, have voted to remove officers from school buildings.

The Portland Board of Education voted this week — after a seven-hour meeting — to remove police from Portland and Deering high schools. Casco Bay High School does not have a resource officer.

The school districts in Charlottesville and Denver will put their $300,000 and $750,000 SRO contracts, respectively, toward alternative safety programs and mental health resources for students, according to a June 18 report in the Christian Science Monitor.

The American Federation of Teachers, a national teachers’ union, has called on schools to create safe environments for students and staff without the direct involvement of local law enforcement, according to its publication, Education Week.

AFT’s executive committee adopted the resolution June 17 in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and greater police accountability.

The “necessary function of school safety should be separated from policing and police forces,” the union said.

Emma LeBlanc, a senior researcher at the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, encouraged the Lewiston School Committee on June 22 to defund police officers in schools in favor of more mental health services.

“Researchers have found police officers in schools actually intimidate students,” LeBlanc wrote in an email that was read aloud at the meeting.

“The presence of police shifts the focus from learning to discipline,” she wrote.

This is especially true for students of color, who are more likely to be arrested, she said. “That increases the likelihood that they will be caught up in the system.”

LeBlanc’s work for the ACLU has primarily focused on criminal justice reform and fighting racial discrimination in schools, according to an online bio.

Majerus-Collins had raised the equity issue in his statement to the committee.

“According to several national studies, students of color and students with disabilities are more likely to be harshly punished for ordinary misbehavior,” he said.

Of the dozen others who emailed the committee during its June 22 discussion, nine favored the removal of police officers from schools.

SUPPORT FOR THE PROGRAM

Lewiston has four dedicated school resource officers, the most in the state. Two, including the DARE officer, are assigned to elementary schools, one is stationed at the middle school and another at the high school, according to Chief Administrative Officer Bobbi Avery.

She said the program is budgeted at $289,481. That is the district’s 75% share of the officers’ salaries, she said. The Police Department pays 25%.

Lewiston High School Principal Jake Langlais believes the program has great value.

“Should the pressures of the world become suggestive that we should operate without (school resource officers), I would like to continue to hear and understand the thinking and for you to have some thoughts from where I sit,” he told school and city officials June 9.

He listed 15 examples of how police officers improve school climates.

The list includes building lifelong relationships in non-confrontational spaces, offering guidance to students, helping staff feel safe, helping students feel safer following school shootings elsewhere, preventing bullying and helping to monitor social media.

“Anyone who thinks it is just ‘PD at school’ doesn’t know how successful it has been,” Langlais said. “Each morning, lunch sitting and afternoon, there are 100 hugs, fist bumps and conversations that kids initiate” with the school officer.

“I believe the investment has an exponentially positive effect on our community as a whole,” he said.

He shared a story about the arrest of a student who was choking his pregnant ex-girlfriend, “swinging to hit her after slamming her head against the wall in the cafeteria.”

The high school’s police officer stopped the assault and helped with the next steps to protect her, Langlais said.

Former Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin said on her last day on the job, June 27, that the district would continue to work closely with the Auburn Police Department to ensure the safety of students and staff.

“We are aware that (police in schools) is a concern nationally and in our state,” she said.

She said the district had heard from one former Edward Little High School student about the issue. She did not elaborate.

The Lisbon School Department has one resource officer who spends time at each school in the district, Superintendent Richard Green said Thursday.

He said there has been no talk of removing the officer from schools.

“We have an amazing relationship with the Lisbon Police Department,” Green said. “We’re fortunate that they are part of our culture.”

He said students have a good rapport with the officer.

“It actually helps having officers in the schools,” Green said. “It helps that students know who the officers are and if anything happens outside school, they have a positive relationship.”

SAD 17, the Oxford Hills School District, has two school officers, Superintendent Rick Colpitts said. One covers the high and middle schools in Paris and another covers Guy E. Rowe Elementary School in Norway. This position is funded by the town of Norway. The other is a contracted service with the town of Paris.

The district has not had a conversation about resource officers, but Colpitts expects it to happen.

“Given the shifting culture around police policies and practices, we will likely review agreements and practices before the school year starts,” he said.

“I highly doubt the positions will be eliminated,” he said.

Regional School Unit 9 Superintendent Tina Meserve said she had not received any request to review the SRO position.

The district, based in Farmington, has one resource officer who has held the position for 15 years, Meserve said.

“The focus of our SRO is to build strong relationships with students and staff and provide support and calm in all types of situations,” Meserve said. “She does that well!”

COMMITTEE WANTS FEEDBACK

Lewiston School Committee members responding to Majerus-Collins’ June 22 presentation said they would like to hear from students and the community about the issue.

Member Alicia Rea, the City Council representative on the committee, said she had heard from many constituents.

“We need to assess whether (having police in schools) is what we want to do,” Rea said. “Much research shows restorative justice is the way to go.”

Chairwoman Monique Roy said she would like to hear from “a lot of students,” look at data and hear from SROs.

“It’s a lot to digest and a big conversation to have,” she said.

Member Lynnea Hawkins said she would want to make sure students had adults available to talk to if the officers were removed.

“They would need someone on staff they could go to and say, ‘Hey, I’m having a really bad day. Can we talk?’” Hawkins said.

She said she used be a school bus driver and middle school is “where the rubber meets the road,” when kids need more guidance.

“One reason we’re having issues in society is that we’re putting too much on people who are not trained for that responsibility,” she said.

Member Ron Potvin, a corrections officer at the Androscoggin County Jail, agreed that issues develop in middle and high school.

Sometimes an outburst of violence occurs at those schools, he said.

“But I do not understand what we are trying to do with SROs in elementary schools,” he said. “What exactly does a heavily armed police officer do with an 8-year-old?”

He said during a visit to Connors Elementary School, which serves inner-city children, a resource officer was “ever-present” in the hallway.

“A 7-year-old Black male student coming down the hall looked at me and said, ‘He’s here because I’m here.’ That shocked me.”

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