Olivia Bean, earth science teacher at Portland High School, says a replacement is needed if school resource officers are eliminated. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)
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Whether police officers should be removed from two city high schools has come to the Portland School Board’s immediate attention, after the local Black Lives Matter group demanded the removal of the school resource officers. 

School Board members are considering a resolution by Chair Roberto Rodriguez and board member Emily Figdor that would end the School Department’s relationship with the Portland Police Department and use the money saved – more than $152,000 for fiscal year 2021 – to address inequities experienced by minority and disadvantaged students. 

The resolution, written with input from students, also calls for the racial disparity in frequency and severity of discipline to be addressed, and would prohibit staff from summoning police except in cases of “real and immediate risk of serious physical harm.” 

The board has been questioning whether to continue a 20-year relationship with the Police Department since a dispute last fall over the use of body cameras by SROs.

Concerns then centered around student privacy and whether footage could be shared with agencies such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ownership of the camera recordings, and when cameras would be activated. Questions were also raised about “role creep” – because officers have become increasingly involved in purely disciplinary matters – and the value of the SRO program as a whole. 

In a June 16 remote workshop and public hearing that went on past midnight, 59 speakers expressed support for the resolution to end the relationship and remove the SROs from Portland and Deering high schools. Six board members also backed the measure – enough for the resolution to pass.

But board members Marnie Morrione and Sarah Thompson opposed it, saying the language in the resolution is divisive and reactionary. They called for more time to have a broader community discussion. 

The resolution notes national statistics on the racial disparities in policing and the trauma it causes on minority communities, specific instances of black people being killed by police in Portland, research on the effects of SROs on school safety, the value of student connectedness with teachers and the school community, student contact with the criminal justice system, and the high cost of the program while other school services are underfunded.

When Rodriguez asked what specifically she found divisive, Thompson said the resolution overall did not seem collaborative in nature. She also questioned the prohibition on calling the police except in cases of “real and immediate risk of serious physical harm.” 

Morrione said that after confronting her own bias, which made her uncomfortable reading the resolution, she still felt it was reactionary in tone and too focused on national issues. She suggested putting together a community task force to come up with a resolution that is more Portland-centric, to develop an alternative if the SROs are to be removed, and to review all policies that involve the Police Department. 

Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana said he supports limiting police to situations of “real and immediate risk of serious physical harm.” He said he would be prepared to give his formal recommendation on the full resolution at the meeting where it has its second reading and vote, likely to be scheduled for June 30.

Regarding calls for developing a replacement for the SROs, Botana said that since they are used at only two schools he would rather see the board address safety across the district.  

Several board members disagreed with Morrione and Thompson. Representative Anna Trevorrow said the feeling of divisiveness comes from one’s biases being challenged. She likes the proposed resolution, she said, because it is written in the voice of the oppressed rather than in the voice of the sympathizer. 

Representative Abusana Bondo said social justice and racial justice should be the board’s top priority. She urged the board to listen to input from students who do not feel comfortable speaking at hearings – specifically the one-third of students who are learning English. 

“For how many years have we decided what is best for those students?” she asked. 

Bondo said that although some students have positive feelings about the specific SROs, “I don’t see the two individual police officers, I see the system, and the system has been failing those students of color.” 

She called on the board to reform the school’s discipline policies to reduce the racial disparities and bring in restorative justice programs. She said instead of having police officers in the school giving minority students the impression that they are being watched and that they are considered dangerous, those students should be advocated for and given opportunities to advance. 

Representative Adam Burk took issue with the suggestion of exceptionalism in Portland, noting that data reported in the Portland Press Herald showed while Black people make up 7 percent to 8 percent of the city population, they make up a disproportionate percentage of arrests, citations, and use of force by the Police Department. 

He said school shootings are a real concern, but SROs do not necessarily make schools safer, pointing out that SROs were unable to prevent the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. 

“It’s the littlest thing that we’ve figured out as adults to try to do to protect our kids,” Burk said about stationing police in schools, “and I’m not comfortable with that Band-Aid. I never have been, and it’s hurting Black and brown kids every day.”

Representative Timothy Atkinson quoted author James Baldwin and called on the board to “go for broke” for students who experience injustice in the classroom. 

“We’re attempting to correct an ongoing injustice, not just the use of law enforcement as an everyday presence in our schools, but also our own school discipline practices that target students of color and those from families with lower incomes, and we’re meeting resistance,” Atkinson said. “You may think that Baldwin is talking about another time and another era, but this is our context as well. We are living in a revolutionary situation. This is not a time for delay.”

Support for SROs

Several speakers at the hearing favored keeping the SROs. 

Portland High School librarian Susie Nick said the resolution was concerning without a plan for how to replace the officers. She said the board would not be hearing from many students at 11:30 p.m. and urged them to get more input from students and the staff “who are living it day to day.” 

Sophie Payson-Rand, a social worker at Portland High School, said the Police Department has already made many of the reforms being proposed across the country. She said Officer Mike Bennis, the SRO at PHS, develops excellent relationships with students and staff of all races equally.

“We’re not going to get rid of the Portland Police Department,” Payson-Rand said. “Why not have our students have a positive experience with an officer in the school so that they are not as afraid when they’re out there?”

Lester Daniels and his two daughters, Gabby and Ashleigh, who have since started a petition to keep the SROs in the schools, also spoke against the resolution. Daniels, who described himself as biracial and an immigrant, made a case for assimilation into white culture through hard work. He said he has never experienced racism in Portland.

Daniels called on minorities to integrate into their new culture, urging Black people to become school volunteers, as he has done as a coach and class reader for 15 years. He chastised others for not picking up their children from sports practices but relying on others to give them rides.

“I’ve failed to see much participation from the colored community, the Black community,” Daniels said. “We all have equal rights, we all can contribute.” 

Tristin Krause said Black Lives Matter concerns should be separated from the conversation about SROs. She said the individual officers are “amazing” people and in some cases are the only adults students can connect with because teachers and administrators are so “uptight.” She also questioned the statistics being reported in the press. 

A letter from Police Chief Frank Clark was also read aloud by Botana.

“During a period in which trust in police is being strongly called into question,” Clark wrote, “ostracizing our well-trusted and respected police staff from the ability to positively engage with the singularly most diverse segment within our city, its schools, seems counterproductive in terms of achieving and maintaining mutual trust and respect.” 

He called the condition in the resolution for allowing staff to call the police “disconcertingly subjective.” 

Alternatives to SROs

But speakers in support of the resolution pointed to Portland’s school discipline data, showing students of color are disproportionately and more harshly disciplined than white students, as well as national data on the racial disparity of policing and the trauma it causes for minority communities.

Many requested the board to invest in more social workers, councilors, mentors, and restorative justice programs with the money that is being spent on officers. They said the roles SROs are playing can be accomplished by someone without a gun and the power to arrest.

Lydia Pillsbury, a contract mental health provider at Deering High School, said students are being criminalized for mistakes that are developmentally appropriate and that some students tell her the SRO makes them feel threatened and unsafe. 

C.C. Robinson suggested there are other ways to partner with police, such as bringing them into the classroom for conversations with students. 

Samuel James said that saying an individual officer is a good guy is an attempt to make black students “trust a system that we know can kill us.”

Victoria Parker said she had about 1,000 names on a petition to remove the SROs.  

David Hilton, a social studies teacher at Lyman Moore Middle School, said an immigrant student in sixth grade told him he is afraid of white police officers.

“Let’s do the hard work of reimagining school culture and safety,” he said, “without police officers.”

The protagonists

Olivia Bean, earth science teacher at Portland High School. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

Olivia Bean

Olivia Bean, earth science teacher at Portland High School, said while she does not fully oppose the School Board resolution on school resource officers, she thinks it is not useful without a replacement plan because of the burden it would place on social workers, administrators, and teachers. 

Bean said her school’s SRO, Officer Mike Bennis, is “lovely,” very approachable and friendly, and serves as a “go-to person” for some students. 

“If that person and that position goes away, something needs to replace that,” she said. “Otherwise, all of those kids and their needs and the other jobs he does gets put onto teachers and administrators who weren’t super included in the process with the resolution happening.”

Bean said social workers have to triage students because they have so many to serve in addition to meetings and other responsibilities. 

“There’s only so much time in the day, and the nature of schools and school funding is that those jobs are already overburdened,” she said. “Some of that burden – whether it should or shouldn’t be is another conversation – is relieved by Officer Bennis and the SRO position in general.” 

Taking Bennis out of the equation, though, changes Bean’s assessment of the position.

With Bennis, she said, you can expect a certain experience. Without him, police response to a school situation becomes less predictable.

“I think that’s scarier for students seeing a cop that they don’t recognize in school,” Bean said. “I don’t think that keeping him would change that, but there’s no plan for that. It’s just ‘let’s get rid of the SRO and redistribute the money.’” 

She said that some of the equity investments being considered, such as enhanced math curriculum, may not improve real or perceived safety in the school.

Bean said her only real safety concern about eliminating the SRO position is Portland High School’s open-campus lunch policy, which allows students to leave during their lunch period – and also allows other people into the building.

“Because we’re downtown and we’re near Preble Street and all these other places, there’s a lot of adults who don’t get the services they need,” she said.  “That can be intimidating for students. People can wander in. The likelihood of something terrible happening is low, but the fact that we have that door open, and it’s for two lunch periods for such a long amount of time, worries some kids, rightfully so.”

“I think there are other ways to deal with most of the other issues,” she said. 

Danielle Layton of Portland is co-author of the USM Cutler Institute study “School-Based Policing in Maine.” She works with the Maine Youth Action Network. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

Danielle Layton 

Danielle Layton, research consultant for Maine Youth Action Network, co-authored the study “School-Based Policing in Maine” while she was a research analyst in the Justice Policy Program at the University of Southern Maine’s Cutler Institute.

Layton spoke in support of the resolution to remove SROs at the School Board public hearing on June 16. She said schools have defaulted to law enforcement rather than invest in holistic responses to student needs and behavior issues.

“This reliance on law enforcement to provide reassurance and to fulfill multiple roles that law enforcement was never designed to do discounts the safety of students of color, students who are economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities, and other vulnerable or marginalized students,” Layton said. “Neither national research nor local research offers support for the belief that SROs deliver effective safety.”

Layton also discounted a School Department survey of Portland High School students, where 90 percent of the 288 students who responded supported having SROs, and 93 percent said they felt safer with an SRO in the school. She said just asking a few true-false questions does not capture the nuance of students’ experience with SROs, and the information does not help schools build better structures.

“I would say (the survey) was poorly written and hastily conducted,” she said.

Layton said her institutional review board-approved research consisting of in-depth interviews with 17 students at Portland and Deering high schools found SRO presence produces conflicting feelings of reassurance, wariness, and intimidation, and that students are integrating conflicting narratives about SROs and school safety. 

While students say they feel safer with SROs, they also expressed anxiety that the SROs cannot fully protect them because they cannot be everywhere at once. 

“Even if they’re in the right place at the right time, the chance of them disarming somebody before they already do damage (is low),” Layton said June 19. “In most of the mass shootings that we see, all of the killing happens in under two minutes.” 

Layton said that while some SROs are building better rapport with students than other adults in the school community, it does not necessarily follow that the SRO is the best or only role to build positive relationships with students. 

While many suggest replacing SROs with more social workers, Layton said not every student connects with social workers. Some find that professional relationship cold, and social workers tend to have heavy caseloads, she said.

She suggested mentors, coaches or “credible messengers” – unarmed, older peers without arrest powers who offer youth advocacy and support – could fill the role of SROs, without producing conflicting feelings in students.

Layton said research has found that the presence of SROs is associated with students having weaker relationships with their teachers, and reduces students’ connectedness to their school, which in turn has negative effects on school culture and students’ educational outcomes. 

She suggested schools look to other ways of promoting school safety such as working to create a positive school climate. 

Portland High School students Ashleigh, left, and Gabby Daniels started a petition to keep school resource officers in schools. They said they had more than 700 signatures by June 21. (Courtesy Lester Daniels)

Ashleigh and Gabrielle Daniels

Ashleigh and Gabrielle Daniels are students at Portland High School. They stayed up late to participate in the School Board’s public hearing on SROs, where the majority of public comment was in favor of the resolution to end the relationship with the Portland Police Department.

They said they were surprised because at a board meeting on May 19 many people spoke in support of the SROs during public comment. The next day, they started a petition. 

“We created this petition to give more people a voice who shared our opinions,” Ashleigh said. “We thought that some people might have been scared to speak up because of the overwhelming amount of people who supported the elimination.”

They wrote in the introduction to the petition that while they “acknowledge the systematic biases of policing, we believe Officer Bennis and (Deering High School SRO Steven Black) build community and enhance school safety. Now is the time to be building bridges and relationships, and to enhance our collective sense of community.”

In the first 24 hours, she said, they got 500 signatures, and as of Sunday night that had grown to more than 700. 

Gabby said the SROs have a positive impact on the high school communities. 

“They’re really good role models,” she said, “They’re always talking to students. They stand at the doors and greet students as they walk into the school and to and from lunch.” 

Gabby said Black builds relationships with students and keeps in contact with them. She said she has heard people of all colors speak very highly of him. She said Bennis goes “above and beyond” for students of color, and has even drawn portraits of many of them. 

Ashleigh said that many of the people who spoke at the June 16 hearing were not affiliated with the two high schools and would not be impacted. Gabby added that students get to see the SROs on a daily basis and see the way they interact with the students. 

“As high school students, we believe we can speak for ourselves, and it is not right for anyone who doesn’t know our school, or our school community, to make this decision without the input of the majority of the students,” she wrote in the petition. 

They called on the School Board to conduct more forums and surveys and gather more input before making a decision. 

— Jordan Bailey