WALES — No day is quite the same for John Dalbec, the school resource officer in Regional School Unit 4.

He’s based at Oak Hill High School in Wales. From there, he travels to the middle and elementary schools across the district, which stretches from Litchfield to Sabattus.

On an October morning when most kids were busy taking exams, Dalbec walked through the halls of the high school and chatted with the few passing students. He talked with a boy about trucks. He thanked a girl for helping him the previous day. Later, he planned to go the home of a student who hadn’t been coming to school.

“You go where the need is,” he said of his work in the central Maine district. “Every day is different, because you don’t want to have patterns. It’s like being on patrol.”

Like other Maine school districts, RSU 4 created a school resource officer position, which Dalbec filled, after last year’s deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

That tragedy was followed by a slew of other threats to schools around Maine and the country. Just this year, authorities in Winthrop and Augusta have responded to what they said were possible threats of violence. In both cases, they found no one was in physical danger. The student implicated in the Winthrop case argued he was just making a joke on social media and is contesting the charge of terrorizing that was filed against him.


Whatever the outcomes, the headlines have prompted many Maine schools to redouble their efforts to protect students and staff members. Besides hiring more resource officers, they’ve been investing in security audits, physical upgrades and staff training. They’ve also tried to improve their existing systems and coordination with emergency responders.

Even so, educators and experts know the chances of an attack are low. Many say that heightened security shouldn’t come at the expense of an inviting school environment, and that ensuring safety is more complicated than just adding security cameras and police.

“It’s a heightened awareness,” said Steven Bailey, executive director of the Maine School Management Association, a nonprofit group that represents superintendents. “These are things you’re hoping you wouldn’t have to deal with, but they’re things that you have to think about and plan for.”

Under Maine law, school districts are required to hold regular lockdown drills and have robust emergency plans that are reviewed annually.

The training that teachers do receive has been shifting in some districts.

In Augusta, for example, the staff is moving away from focusing strictly on lockdowns, said James Anastasio, superintendent of the Augusta School Department. Working with police and state officials, staff members are learning strategies for fleeing or fighting back against armed intruders as well.


Schools also have been making physical changes, such as adding security cameras or trimming trees to improve the view of certain parts of the grounds. An established practice is to create a single means of entry to a school at its front door, so that administrators can monitor closely who is entering.


Perhaps the most visible approach to school safety is the addition of school resource officers, the sworn law enforcement officials who serve a broad range of purposes in schools, including security guard, safety consultant, counselor and instructor.

As of this fall, Maine had at least 82 school resource officers, according to data collected by Danielle Layton, a research analyst at the University of Southern Maine.

Some central Maine districts already have had them for some time — including the Augusta schools and Regional School Unit 18, which serves China, Oakland, Sidney and Belgrade — but at least two districts added positions this year.

In Gardiner, School Administrative District 11 has hired a new school resource officer this year, according to Superintendent Patricia Hopkins. That doubled the number of officers working in the district.


In RSU 4, the new resource officer, Dalbec, started his job after spending 30 years as a police officer in Cumberland County — five of them on patrol and the rest in schools.

While keeping an eye on security is one of his roles, Dalbec also sees himself as a support for students, inviting them to his office to speak about college, their concerns, their interests or anything else, and connecting them with resources. Among his early contributions were helping to create a space for students to eat lunch outside, and finding clothes and a sleeping bag for a student going on a field trip.

School resource officer John Dalbec confers with Zachery Derosier, a junior, on Oct. 10 in the lobby at Oak Hill High School in Wales.

“John offers a direct link between the school community and the community at large,” said Marco Aliberti, principal of Oak Hill High School. “John is able to make sure a student got home OK, and vice versa. There may be things going on outside that do influence the building in some way, shape or form, and he can be a bridge between the two parties.”

Some privacy advocates object to the use of both security cameras and resource officers in Maine schools. The American Civil Liberties of Maine argues that both approaches increase surveillance and the likelihood that students — particularly children of color — could end up in the criminal justice system, according to Emma Bond, a staff attorney for the organization.

“That doesn’t serve our students well,” she said.

But Aliberti and Dalbec said that, if anything, the new resource officer has had the opposite effect. Without getting into specifics, Aliberti said that students have done things outside school that could have gotten them in trouble with the law, but Dalbec stepped in to help them avoid that route.


“It doesn’t help anybody by putting them in jail,” Dalbec said. “It just doesn’t work. We need to develop people’s minds, souls and bodies so they can go out and be productive.”

Cony High School Principal Kim Silsby said the school speaks with students about their options and has a school resource officer, Office Desmond Nutting, to make students feel safer.


While resource officers can help make schools safer, they also shouldn’t replace the counselors, social workers and other staff members who play important roles in creating a positive climate for students to learn and develop, according to one school safety expert.

As the executive director of Safe Havens International, an organization focused on campus safety, Michael Dorn helped write a 2014 report on the safety of Maine schools.

In an interview, Dorn said that districts should first decide whether they have an adequate nursing or counseling staff before looking to hire a resource officer, given that they’re probably more likely to encounter students suffering from health problems — such as an opioid overdose or an anxiety attack — than to be attacked by an intruder.


“With school resource officers, it’s like anything else: If they’re (used correctly), they can be incredibly effective, but it goes back to mental health resources and school resources,” Dorn said. “It doesn’t go to either-or. … Physical security is really important, but a behavior(ial) approach is much more reliable than physical security. We like to see a healthy combination of both.”

Others who have studied school violence say that educators must earn the trust of students if they want kids to pass along information about peers who might harm themselves or others.

The common refrain that students who “see something” should “say something” isn’t enough, said Jeff Daniels, a professor of counseling psychology at West Virginia University who has studied cases in which school shootings were averted.

“Especially with adolescents, there is such a culture of anti-snitching: ‘I don’t want to be someone who rats someone out,'” Daniels said. “It has to go beyond saying that. In schools I visit, they often try to make this distinction between being a snitch and being helpful. This notion of ‘telling on someone’ is trying to get help. That needs to be emphasized.”

When shootings have happened, there was often someone who had valuable information but didn’t divulge it, according to Daniels. He suggested anonymous tip lines as one resource that may help convince students to pass along concerns without fear of reprisal.

In Maine, many school officials say they are trying to create a supportive environment, both to improve the education that their students are receiving and increase the likelihood that a student will report suspicious behavior.


They’ve generally avoided investing in metal detectors or other technology that would make school “seem like a fortress,” said Bailey, of the Maine School Management Association.

In RSU 4, staff members have both formal and informal ways to focus on students who might be facing challenges, according to Aliberti, the principal.

“I look at it as we’re surrogate parents,” he said. “I look at it as, we’re making connections. We know what they like for food, their favorite basketball team. As cheesy as all that sounds, it’s an extremely important way to show that you care about someone.”

Another central Maine school district, Oakland-based RSU 18, decided to devote more attention to students this year, according to Superintendent Carl Gartley. It has reduced class sizes, incorporated extra programs for students who are struggling and hired more social and health workers. The district now has a nurse in every building.

“The changes we took were more around supporting or finding ways to support kids before they get into crisis,” Gartley said.

Students in central Maine still feel safe at school, with or without a resource officer in the school.


Elijah Bezanson, a sophomore at Cony, said Officer Nutting’s presence at the school helps the students feel safer.

“I love our SRO Officer,” Bezanson said. “I know he is someone who I can trust (and) he increases my security and confidence.”

At Hall-Dale High School, a school without a resource officers, students attribute their safety to the size of the school and the state of the surrounding community. Senior Matthew Albert said Hall-Dale’s small enrollment — about 300 students, according to Principal Mark Tinkham — and his familiarity with his fellow students makes him feel safe at school.

“If Hall-Dale had a school security officer, I would feel safer, but I don’t think that one is necessary for me to feel safe,” Albert said. “Our community doesn’t seem to have a lot of the issues like drugs (and) crime, which the communities that surround us do.”

Tinkham said Hall-Dale reflects upon their safety practices when an incident happens elsewhere in the country.

“With any incident in schools, we always reflect upon our practices, our evacuation routes and sites, sheltering in place versus self defense, and how we communicate on those situations,” he said. “Every incident is a learning opportunity. I kind of wish we’d have an opportunity to stop learning.”


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