Divided Portland board removes police officers from schools

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After seven hours of discussion and public comment during a meeting that stretched into the early hours of July 1, the Portland School Board ended the city’s school resource officer program, backing a resolution that cited the disproportionate killings of black people by police and over-policing of communities of color nationwide.

The resolution, presented by School Board member Emily Figdor and board Chair Roberto Rodriguez, also cites the police killings of black people in Portland, and local and national research that shows SROs have a negative impact on schools. 

It calls for the $152,000 that would be saved by ending the program to be used on security enhancements, professional development for staff, and equity investments.

Black Lives Matter Portland had called on June 9 for the removal of police from Portland and Deering high schools. Lewiston is also considering a proposal to reduce the number of SROs in its schools, investing instead in a restorative justice coordinator for Lewiston High School. 

The Portland Public Schools Central Office on Cumberland Avenue. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

The Portland resolution passed 7-2, with board members Mark Balfantz and Sarah Thompson in the minority. The meeting via Zoom was interrupted by “Zoom bombs,” at least one of which contained a threat, causing Rodriguez to close public comment.

Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana came out in support of the resolution after previously supporting the SRO program.

He said he has learned by listening to testimony and reading and reflecting on the issue, that “so many of the roles and values that we ascribe to our school resource officer is the result of a culture that prioritizes order over learning, and the sense of safety of some over the trauma of others.”

While the program has been under scrutiny since last fall when the Police Department proposed that its officers wear body cameras in school, opponents of the resolution said the decision came about suddenly. They noted the board opted not to cut the program from the School Department’s budget in late May, just a month before the resolution to end the program was proposed. 

“It’s very sad for me being a Portland native, and a Maine native, that it has come to this in the sense of the great divisiveness,” Thompson said in a phone call July 9, pointing out that opposing petitions to keep and remove the SROs each received around 1,000 signatures. “So that tells you the community is pretty divided.”

She said she believed national events gave opponents of the SRO program the opportunity to write the resolution and pass it hastily, but that it did not have much to do with Portland’s resource officers. 

“I understand that some people are afraid,” Thompson said. “Let’s talk about it and find out why are they afraid and what can we do to help people – but there was none of that.”

She also said the resolution misrepresented the killings by Portland police of David Okot in 2009 and Chance Baker in 2017, because Okot had a gun, and Baker was killed after waving what turned out to be a BB gun at the Union Station Shopping plaza. 

Thompson proposed an alternative resolution that would have delayed the decision by a year in order to have a broader community discussion. It failed by a vote of 6-3, with Balfantz and board member Marnie Morrione joining Thompson in support. Morrione said she is in favor of removing SROs, but wanted to take time first to develop a strategy for how the roles played by the officers would be replaced. 

Thompson raised questions about the process at the meeting.

First, she questioned why a letter was read from Danielle Layton opposing the alternate resolution before the designated public comment period on the amendment. Rodriguez said it was read at that time because the alternate resolution referenced a study Layton co-authored, which Layton argued had been misinterpreted. 

Thompson also interrupted a student during public comment who was relating a traumatic experience she had with Deering High School School Resource Officer Steve Black. Thompson thought that allegations against school personnel could not legally be made in public comment and asked the chair to not allow it.

Rodriguez asked the student to instead email the allegation to the board but then pointed out that Black was not school staff. Thompson apologized for the error, and Rodriguez said he would meet with the superintendent to discuss questions that came up about the process. 

Sisters Ashleigh and Gabby Daniels, who started a petition to keep the SROs, helped write the alternate resolution along with teachers Ericka Lee-Winship, Beth Arsenault, and Olivia Bean; social workers Maryann Carroll and Sophia Payson-Rand, and parents Pattie Gallant and Jeff Irish. 

“Although Gabby and I didn’t get the result we wanted, we’re very proud of what we accomplished,” Ashleigh Daniels said in an email July 9. “ We stood up when nobody else would, we heard from many teachers, parents, community members, and students who were scared to speak up, but were on our side. The meeting last Tuesday was disappointing but we regret nothing.” 

Despite the assertion that the resolution was rushed through, Botana and some board members said the issue has had extensive public input since last fall. 

“This process has had multiple opportunities for thought-provoking conversations, testimony, surveys, news stories, and reading,” Botana said. “While the process may not have been perfect it would be a folly to say that there has been no process. … There have been few issues in my tenure in Portland that have involved more people, where I’ve seen board members as engaged or where I’ve learned as much.

Figdor, who represents District 2, said she received nearly 500 calls and emails on this issue, 80 percent of which were in favor of ending the SRO program, and later pointed out that there were still 156 participants logged in to the remote meeting at 1 a.m. 

“I’ve been on the board for a little more than a year and a half, and I’ve never seen the level of engagement, and a lot of it was student engagement,” she said. 

She also referenced Associate Professor Paul Gorski of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, who founded the Equity Literacy Institute and has written that in many schools the pace of equity progress prioritizes the comfort and interests of the people who have the least interest in that progress, and warns against waiting for an “elusive consensus.” 

At-large representative Anna Trevorrow said that she may have supported the amended resolution several months ago.

“A deliberative approach that’s informed by research is not a bad idea,” Trevorrow said. “It’s just that lately, it’s become apparent to me how overdue systemic change is and just how long people of color have been calling for change. So I don’t see this as a hasty decision.” 

Public comment on the amendment and main resolution went on for several hours, with most speakers supporting ending the SRO program. 

One of them was Elizabeth Sommo, a social worker at Portland High school. She said people would be surprised at how good school staff is at de-escalation, and that she does a lot of de-escalation in her own work with students with behavioral disabilities.

“I think that the idea that there has to be a gun involved to de-escalate is scary,” Sommo said. “I don’t like the idea of there being guns in schools at all.”

Botana acknowledged that while SROs cannot be expected to prevent school shootings, if one were to occur at Deering or Portland high schools, the board would be held accountable for the tragedy differently than if they had kept the SROs in place.

The board revised some of the provisions in the resolution, at Botana’s request. 

One provision was removed which would have prevented school staff from calling police unless they are in immediate risk of danger. Another directs the superintendent to work with a broad group of stakeholders to revise all policies that govern the relationship with the Police Department. 

Botana said he found that “familiarity breeds sloppiness:” The policies governing the schools’ relationship with the Police Department, he said, give police extensive “and largely unwarranted” access to students and their records, camera footage and the results of academic searches. 

Another provision requiring funds saved by ending the SRO program to be reallocated exclusively toward equity goals was amended to say they will also be made available for safety and security expenses.

A July 2 press release from the School Department stated some of the funds saved would be used to train parents, students, and staff on conflict resolution, de-escalation, and implicit bias. In addition, resources would be directed toward collaborations with staff, students, parents, alumni, law enforcement, lawyers, community organizations, mental health providers, and youth advocates to integrate positive behavioral interventions and develop culturally responsive practices that support all students. 

Botana said at the meeting he and Police Chief Frank Clark discussed the possibility of designating a set of officers to respond to school incidents, and that these officers would go through specialized SRO training.

Botana wrote to Clark on July 6, saying that the decision does not imply that the performance of the city’s two SROs, Black and Portland High School’s Mike Bennis, was lacking in any way.

“I look forward to working with you to ensure that our schools are safe and that the relationship between our two organizations continues to evolve in a positive manner,” he wrote. 

Clark said July 10 he was disappointed in the decision to remove the officers.

“I supported their mission … and the impacts they had on the safety and feelings of safety for students and staff,” Clark said in an email. “Especially today, given that the schools include the most diverse segment of our community, it’s also unfortunate that our officers and youth won’t have that time and venue in which to build positive relationships based upon mutual trust and respect.”

He said the two officers will assume other duties, and that Portland patrol officers “will continue to respond to each and every call for service at any of our schools.” 

Schools consider options for reopening

As the debate continues nationwide over whether and how schools should reopen in the fall, the Portland Public Schools is working on possible reopening scenarios. 

Superintendent Xavier Botana sent letters to parents June 18 and July 8 outlining three options: full reopening, a combination of in-person and remote learning, and full remote learning. 

The hybrid scenario of in-person school and remote learning would be used if physical distancing guidelines allow only 20 percent to 50 percent of the student population in school each day.

Under this scenario, students would be divided into groups, each attending school two days a week: Monday and Tuesday for Group A and Thursday and Friday for Group B. Students would learn remotely on other days. 

Another possibility is for pre-kindergarten through second-grade, sixth-grade, and ninth-grade students to attend in person, while other grades remain on the two-day-a-week schedule. This would be possible if the state allows 50 percent of the school population to learn in person on any day.

Otherwise, approximately one-third of the students in grades 3-5, 7, 8, and 10-12 would have to stay home, learning remotely full time. 

The letters also outlined precautionary measures that would be taken to combat the spread of COVID-19.

The district is ordering masks and other personal protective equipment, establishing enhanced hygiene and cleaning protocols, ensuring classrooms have good ventilation, and configuring rooms to allow for physical distancing, Botana wrote July 8. 

He wrote June 18 that outdoor space would be used when feasible, and student sharing of food, learning materials, toys, and electronic devices would be restricted. Breakfast served in school will be in pre-packaged containers, and remote learners would have access to take-home lunches. 

The schools would follow a daily symptom check protocol and have a plan in place in the event a student or staff member gets sick, including 24-hour closure of affected areas for disinfecting. 

Proper distancing would be maintained on buses, and trip times would be limited. Families would be encouraged to provide transportation when they can and “walking school buses” – groups of children walking to and from school with one or more adults – would be used as much as possible. 

The Maine Department of Education provides guidance to school districts developing reopening plans and lists considerations for reopening, including local markers such as whether there is a downward trajectory of documented cases and newly hospitalized patients. 

Portland’s Reopening Planning Team and several workgroups of teachers, administrators, and staff have been consulting school nurses and education experts, reviewing the latest guidance from the CDC and the Maine DOE and gathering input from students and parents, through focus groups.

A family survey conducted in June showed that 63 percent of parents who responded intend to send their children back to school in the fall. 

“I know that everyone is longing for a return to normal,” Botana wrote July 8. “As we approach the school year, we will have a clearer picture of the circumstances that are in play and will dictate our course of action. Regardless of the scenario we decide to follow, our overall goal is a stronger learning experience for all our students.”

Workgroups will be collecting more parent and student feedback before reporting to the School Board on Aug. 4. A decision on which scenario will be put in place is expected in by mid-August. 

— Jordan Bailey