Portland public safety discussion renews questions about school resource officers

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At the June meeting of the City Council Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee, city and school officials said they were confident about the city’s ability to effectively respond to an active shooter.

More recent discussions, however, suggest communication between the School Department and Portland police has room for improvement, raising new questions about the value of school resource officers.

Interim Police Chief Heath Gorham said at the HHS and Public Safety meeting on July 12 that communication between the Police Department and the schools “isn’t a perfect system by any stretch.”

Geoff Bickford
Geoff Bickford, executive director of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said the state isn’t immune to the threat of gun violence, thanks to lenient laws and easy access to firearms. (Courtesy MGSC)

The removal of school resource officers in 2020, while supported by the School Board as an equity initiative, could be considered a setback when it comes to flagging students who might be in unsafe situations, Gorham said.

Threat assessment was a particular struggle when SROs were removed, he said, “and it continues to be.” The School Department has a threat assessment team, he explained, which had included the SROs.

Now, Gorham said, he and his staff hold weekly meetings with Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana and school staff to share information about students who might feel unsafe in their homes, rather than the information going through the SROs. If a potential safety concern arises, he said, the line of communication is between him and Botana.

Nationwide studies have shown SROs don’t necessarily prevent gun violence or gun-related incidents, but can reduce some other forms of violence. The nonprofit Maine Gun Safety Coalition also says SROs could still have a role in protecting schools, especially in light of the mass shootings increasingly seen at schools in recent years.

In an interview, coalition Executive Director Geoff Bickford said he understands the arguments against SROs, but suggests a modified role.

“If you had SROs that weren’t there to deal with juvenile behavior but were there solely to protect against mass shootings,” he said, “that might be something we need to do.”

Gun violence data kept by the state suggests Maine has a higher amount of firearms per household than the national average, but a lower rate of gun deaths: It is estimated that 45 percent of households in Maine have at least one gun, compared to the national average of 32 percent.

But with no requirement for permits or a gun registry, the numbers can only be so accurate.

“One thing I really want to emphasize is the data around gun ownership, gun control, gun violence – all of it is sorely lacking,” Tina Pettingill, deputy director of Portland’s Health and Human Services Department, said.

With guns rooted in Maine tradition, wholesale change could be difficult to implement, according to Michael Rocque, an associate professor of sociology at Bates College in Lewiston.

“It’s such a black and white discussion of a very gray and complicated subject that it makes it difficult for any movement to happen on either side of the aisle,” Rocque said.

Slow and incremental changes, particularly in a progressive city like Portland, Rocque said, could be a starting point for progress on gun reform.

But even small steps might be difficult to implement because of the state’s overarching rules on gun rights, which take the ability to regulate guns away from towns and cities and creates a “one-size-fits-all” situation, Bickford added.

He expressed concern that the sheer number of guns and the ease of access could mean there’s always a risk of tragic gun deaths in the state. “Maine is not immune to this,” he warned.

But Bickford also said he’s optimistic that more protections could be in place in the next year or two, citing two gun safety bills the Legislature recently passed

“People have had it, they’re terrified, and they want something to be done,” he said.

Portland school officials elected not to respond in the HHS and Public Safety Committee meeting and said they plan to revisit questions about gun safety processes in August, closer to the start of the school year. The committee discussion is also on hold, until Sept. 13.

The committee chair, Councilor Tae Chong, suggested partnerships between the city and Portland Public Schools to raise awareness about gun safety are an option worth exploring.

“What kind of safety measures can we put in place during the school year or at the beginning of the school year?” he said.