When kids at Mahoney Middle School insult or bully Kalie Swiger and she’s not quite sure how to react, she goes straight to School Resource Officer Linda Barker.

Swiger said Barker helps her sort out these emotional trials, trials that are common to many students. “When I go to talk to her, she always has time to listen,” said Swiger.

Swiger is one of many students who view Barker as an advisor, a counselor and a mentor. Three resource officer positions were added to the South Portland school district six years ago. Now, it’s likely that two of those positions will be eliminated after being cut from the superintendent’s preliminary budget.

Under a statewide initiative to limit property tax increases, cities and towns across the state have limited spending and South Portland is no different.

The South Portland City Council agreed to cap spending at 4.6 percent of both the city and school budgets, and as a result, the superintendent and the administration were forced to make $225,000 in cuts to the school budget, including the school resource officer positions. However, those cuts will not become final until the City Council votes on the budget next month.

South Portland Superintendent Wendy Houlihan said cutting the two resource officers, one each at Mahoney and Memorial middle schools, will save the district slightly more than $94,000. But some teachers and students think the savings don’t outweigh the value of the officers.

Barker has tailored her education to her position as a resource officer. With 25 years as a police officer, a master’s degree in education and a graduate certificate in counseling from the University of New England, she is qualified to discipline, teach and counsel, which is exactly what the position requires, said Barker.

Barker’s job is dynamic. She swings in and out of classrooms, working with health instructors and other teachers to provide law-based education, she said.

She talks to students about Internet safety, harassment, drugs and alcohol, the juvenile justice system and smoking. Barker also plans summer expeditionary learning trips for students and teaches tobacco preventative classes called Smokeless Saturdays, for minors with tobacco convictions.

Barker considers herself a resource to the entire school. She works with teachers and students to fill out the curriculum, adding components of safety and justice that might otherwise be neglected, not for lack of interest or desire, but because teachers are stretched thin. “We already put a lot on our teachers,” said Barker.

However, it’s the one-on-one time she spends with students, helping them solve problems that she feels will be acutely missed.

Barker helped seventh grader Scott DiChiara navigate his way through a prickly bullying situation. DiChiara said one of his classmates, “used to think he was big and push me around.” DiChiara’s reaction was to fight back, which only landed him in trouble. To be more specific, it landed him in Barker’s office.

Barker coached him on managing difficult bullying situations. Rather than exacerbate the conflict by fighting, she suggested befriending the bully. Surprisingly enough, it worked. “She helped me,” said DiChiara. He and the bully “got to be friends…sort of,” said DiChiara. Even if DiChiara can’t solidly call the bully his friend, he also no longer calls him his foe.

This is the part of the job Barker will miss the most. “These kids have problems in their own lives, that’s what I feel the loss of already,” said Barker, who said individual student counseling is an integral part of her job.

Seventh grader Natasha Scott said at first she didn’t understand the role of the resource officer. Now though, she said, she can’t imagine school without it. “I don’t want her to leave.”

Scott, Swiger and DiChiara said having an officer in the hallways and in school keeps kids in line. “With an officer here, kids think they need to smarten up more,” said Swiger.

Barker described her role as preventative. Oftentimes she acts as a deterrent to misbehavior.

Students say that because of Barker’s hallway presence, name-calling and pushing in the hallways has lessened. “It’s just like when a see a cop and you don’t have your seatbelt on, you’re gonna put your seatbelt on,” said Scott.

South Portland Police Lt. Frank Clark characterizes the resource officer role like this: “They walk a line between officers, social workers and educators.”

Houlihan said that though the middle school resource officer positions are a source of valuable supplemental education, much of what they offer is covered in the health curriculum. “It’s not a teaching position, we wouldn’t call it a teaching position,” Houlihan said.

The position is valuable primarily as a tool to acquaint students with police in a positive forum, rather than in exclusively punitive circumstances, Houlihan said. “Students get to know a police officer who is a friendly face,” she said.

Barker worries that kids won’t find this elsewhere. “My greatest fear is that the only contact they’re going to have with police is when they’re doing something wrong.”

For Clark and the police force, losing these positions is keeping with a trend that he’s seen in his 18 years in the department. “We’d have to do more with less,” he said.

The three resource officers typically return to patrol in the summer, supplementing the force by providing vacation relief for patrol cops, said Clark. They also reduce calls to the schools, he said.

With the schools funding about 75 percent of these positions, the department can only afford to maintain one of these officers on their payroll. Clark says the department cannot afford to lose positions now when so many officers are eligible for retirement.

Clark is worried that with the increasingly difficult job of filling police positions, the city will be left short-staffed if the 10 or so officers now eligible for retirement leave at the same time. Clark said he couldn’t recall another time in his 18-year tenure when so many officers were up for retirement. “All they need to do is give a two-week notice,” he said.

Clark theorizes that with a growing city population but a stagnant police force, South Portland will more and more rely on help from neighboring towns to respond to emergency situations.

“We would be more dependent,” he said.

Barker is adamant that whether it’s herself or somebody else in the role of school resource officer, it’s necessary for the students. Barker fears that once deleted from the budget the positions might never reappear. “The kids deserve it…it’s a step back for the community,” to lose these positions, she said.

From left, Mahoney Middle School students Natasha Scott, Kalie Swiger, Jess Choyce and Scott DiChiaro will miss Linda Barker, if her position as school resource officer is cut from the South Portland school budget. Two out of the three resource officers in the school system are being cut from the budget.Resource Officer Linda Barker is already anticipating packing up her office at Mahoney Middle School. Her position as well as the Memorial Middle School resource officer position have been cut from the South Portland school budget.

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