Lewiston School Resource Officer Kenneth Strout gives an elbow to one of the departing students at Connors Elementary School on Monday morning. The elbow tap has become the new high-five in the age of COVID-19. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Tell me who I am.

This is how school resource officer Kenneth Strout begins his lesson on stereotyping.

Kids see the crisp uniform, the kind eyes, the white skin and assume he grew up in a middle-class home with a caring family.

They are wrong.

“When I told them my life story, you could have heard a pin drop,” Strout said in a recent interview at Connors Elementary School where he has a small office.

A school policeman for the past six years, he divides his time among the city’s five elementary schools: Connors, Farwell, Geiger, McMahon and Montello.

A corkboard in his office is covered in drawings from pupils. A copy of the Quran sits on his desk.

He lifts the book, a smile in his eyes.

“This isn’t a prop,” he said. “A teacher just gave this to me. It almost made me cry when he said it’s because I’m a good man.”

The teacher is a Muslim immigrant.

“I love the Somali community,” Strout said, adding he feels a connection with all the kids in Lewiston elementary schools.

He taps the front of his blue uniform.

“Kids don’t see this, they see me,” he said. He said he’s not your typical white Irish cop.

He follows a vegan diet and he is a liberal, he said. He believes in police reform. In defense of resource officers, he said, “We do not police schools. We are police in schools.”

In past years, he has taught a modified Drug Abuse Resistance Education class to sixth-graders. The class is focused on bullying, peer pressure and managing stress.

The School Committee voted 5-4 on Aug. 31 to end the DARE program but to keep Strout in the schools.

School Resource Officer Ken Strout of the Lewiston Police Department walks back to his seat after answering questions from the Lewiston School Committee on Aug. 31. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Committee member Ron Potvin was opposed to having an armed, uniformed officer in elementary schools until he visited those schools and talked to children.

“Thank you for changing my mind,” Potvin said to Strout at the Aug. 31 meeting. “I want to give a shoutout that the community is behind you.”

Indeed, dozens spoke in support of Strout.

Teachers told stories of how pupils would turn and wave when he entered a classroom. How they flocked to him for fist bumps, high-fives and hugs.

Those opposed to officers in schools spoke in general terms of children being afraid of armed men and women. No one had a complaint about the individual officers.

Matthew Vierling, the police officer assigned to Lewiston High School, said students at that school would ask about their former DARE officer. “’How’s he doing?’”

He said taking Strout out of schools would be a big mistake.

“The whole premise of officers in schools is over-encompassing,” Vierling said. “It’s not just protection. It’s counseling, guidance. It’s not just a big brother. It’s a father figure, a friend. If you start to chip away, someone in school is going to lose something.”

Strout has been a police officer for 27 years. When the school job became available, he hesitated to apply. Would he be able to help these kids?

“At first I was very uncomfortable with it,” he said. “But my wife said, ‘You need to do it. It’s why you wanted to go into policing.’”

‘KIND AND CALM’

Former Connors Principal Sara Sims — now director of alternative education programs at the Longley Building — called Strout “an incredible asset” who built strong relationships with students when she was there last year.

“You could find him every morning outside the school greeting students with high-fives, fist bumps, hugs and kind words,” Sims said.

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. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal file photo

Strout knew pupils by name and made them feel welcomed, she said.

“He was kind and calm in all of his undertakings with students,” she said, “and many students sought him out as a safe haven if they were upset.”

No parent or student ever expressed concern about the uniformed officer’s presence in the school, Sims said.

“I often heard from parents how much Officer Strout meant to their students and even while we were in lockdown due to the pandemic, I had families reach out as they wanted to connect with him,” she said.

Superintendent Jake Langlais said he has heard many anecdotes about Strout’s talent for relationship-building. The essays that he assigns at the end of his classes often are about pupils’ “great” relationships with Strout, Langlais said.

“Ken is a good man who is building relationships with students that are long-lasting,” Langlais said.

Strout was hired for the school position because of his ability to interact with students and staff, Lewiston Police Chief Brian O’Malley said.

“He is caring and compassionate about his job,” O’Malley said. “I am aware of Officer Strout’s personal background, from his home life growing up. His life experiences make him empathetic to many of the children he interacts with.”

Strout, 55, grew up on Munjoy Hill in Portland, before it was gentrified, when it was a neighborhood of rundown tenements and street violence.

His father died when he was 10 and his mother sank deeper into alcoholism.

Young Ken was bullied in school, beaten up at least once a week, he said. He was an only child and his mother was pretty much absent. If he needed a paper signed for school, he’d have to go the American Legion where she sat drinking.

“My childhood is on delete for me,” Strout said. “It was bad. We didn’t go on trips or take vacations.”

He said he knew he was going to be in jail or dealing drugs or be dead after high school, in which he did not excel.

He decided the military was his only way out, so he joined the U.S. Air Force.

When he got out four years later, he had no idea what to do next. Then he ran into his former school police officer, a member of the PAL program.

“He was somebody who paid attention to me (at Portland High School) and who I could talk to,” Strout said. “I had no motivation to be a cop at that time.”

But now he had to find his way.

His former mentor told him the Portland Police Department was testing for recruits. They would take the top 22 scores on the civil service exam.

Strout came in 23rd among “a few hundred” tested, he said.

When he got home, the phone was ringing. One of the recruits had dropped out. Strout was in.

“It literally saved my life,” he said.

KEEPING IT REAL

Strout eventually moved to Lisbon, his wife Tania’s hometown. They adopted two infants from China, now ages 13 and 17.

Strout joined the Lewiston Police Department in 2004. His beat was the inner city: rundown tenements, poverty and violence.

“Driving the tree streets every night, you see the bad,” he said. “I’ve seen the worst of the worst.”

Certain kids from this neighborhood — who attend Connors — have seen shootings, murders, drug abuse, he said. They have been abused and neglected.

He knows the signs. He knows what it’s like to be on the “other side,” and he can’t fake it.

“I can’t teach as if I haven’t seen things,” he said. “Kids who have seen shootings, you can’t talk to them as if they’re naïve. If you don’t talk about real stuff, you won’t help them stay out of trouble.”

Keeping it real helps kids open up. About 100 children come to him every year just to talk, Strout said.

He is responsible for 3,500 pupils in the elementary schools and has taught DARE classes to a total of 400 to 500 pupils per year.

Now that the DARE program has been discontinued, Strout is working on creating an updated program. He is doing research, he said, unable to teach now because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new program will be similar only to DARE in that it will offer a platform to talk to kids, he said.

On a recent sunny day, Strout stood in the lobby of Connors Elementary School as masked pupils were being dismissed.

He offered elbow bumps in place of hugs and high-fives. No hugging during the pandemic but plenty of eye contact.

This was the first day of prekindergarten and the youngsters were not yet acquainted with Strout, but few hesitated to return the bump.

It’s the kids who keep him going, he said.

When he’s having a bad day, just looking in on a kindergarten class, peeking through a window or standing in a doorway, can lift his spirits.

His eyes brighten at the thought.

“The thing that’s incredible about that is that the classes are kids of all color, of all economic status, and there is not one kid in that room who cares about color, where you live or what your parents do for a living,” Strout said.


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