A discussion on proposed rules for the use of body cameras by school resource officers in Portland schools Tuesday night sparked debate among school board members, some of whom questioned the need for the officers.

The board is scheduled to vote Nov. 12 on a revised memorandum of understanding with the Portland Police Department, which recently outfitted all its officers, including the school district’s two school resource officers, with body cameras.

The change follows a city ordinance on police body cameras passed in April 2018 and a push to incorporate them into police work following an officer involved fatal shooting in the city in February 2017.

Board member Tim Atkinson expressed concerns and said he could not envision supporting the new agreement with the police department.

“I think the Portland police department is very well meaning, as is our school district, but we have work to do on addressing implicit bias and tackling the systemic and institutional racism that exists in our society and our institutions,” Atkinson said. “These are two of our institutions that sadly help contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Police Chief Frank Clark told the board the cameras would be used less than they are by regular patrol officers and most of the footage would be protected from public release because of legal protections for juveniles. He said the department has a good relationship with the schools currently and to not have school resource officers would be negligent.

Portland Public Schools currently has two full-time officers, at Portland High School and Deering High School, at a cost of around $130,000 total.

The proposed rules around body cameras differ from those that apply to officers outside of schools.

According to language drafted for inclusion in the memorandum of understanding, school resource officers would only activate their cameras when responding to cases of suspected criminal activity or when assisting school personnel with matters that may result in disorderly or otherwise disruptive behavior.

The resource officers would also be required to inform people involved that they are being recorded and they would not be allowed to record in places where a reasonable expectation of privacy exists, such as locker rooms and restrooms.

The cameras could not be used in administrative meetings with school staff or students. Recordings would not be “randomly viewed” by school personnel, but at the request of the superintendent could be used to investigate student, employee or other matters.

Parents and legal guardians of students could also request to view the recordings at the school or police department.

After the 2017 shooting death of 22-year-old Chance David Baker by a Portland police officer, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine called on the city to use the cameras, saying the cameras, along with proper policies to protect privacy and due process, would provide much-needed accountability.

However, Michael Kebede, policy counsel at the ACLU of Maine, said Tuesday the organization does not support body cameras used by school resource officers.

“When done right, body cameras can make sense on police in our communities,” Kebede said. “But they don’t make sense on police in our schools.”

He said the ACLU has concerns that the use of the cameras is a violation of federal student privacy laws and that video footage of students would be shared in police databases without the consent of students or their parents. He also said there are more effective ways to hold school resources officers, who often function as guidance counselors or social workers, accountable.

“What happens to the psychology of the student or the student body when they see a camera on the person they’re supposed to confide in and trust?” Kebede said.

Both Portland High Principal Sheila Jepson and Deering High School Co-Principal Abdullahi Ahmed said they think the cameras could be helpful.

“I hear both sides and I would have to go to trusting my school resource officer on when and if it’s going to be used, and I do,” Jepson said. “I will leave that debate to you, but I do think there is value to using it in the school system. I don’t think we would use it often but do think there is value.”

Board member Marnie Morrione, who said she is conflicted about the proposal, added that communication around the reason for the cameras is also important. She said they are not a reaction to concerns that were recently expressed about safety at Deering High School due to a handful of fights last school year.

“We’re coming off a time trying to make sure people know those weren’t serious criminal things happening at Deering and, ‘Oh, wow, now we have an officer here with a camera,'” she said. “I want to make sure we communicate around it if we agree (to having cameras).”

There are at least 71 school resource officers working in at least 49 of Maine’s roughly 179 school districts, according to a report on school-based policing released earlier this month by the University of Southern Maine.

Kelli Deveaux, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Education, said the department does not have numbers on how many school resource officers across the state are equipped with body cameras.

In other news Tuesday, the board also pledged to take a look at revising its policy on harassment and sexual harassment of students, after a recent graduate and other members of the public implored them to do so.

“I think the majority of board members know this (has been an issue) but we have been a bit slow in moving forward on it,” said board member Marnie Morrione. “I just want to apologize for it. I don’t have a strong reason other than this is a great opportunity to really listen to our students and listen to their voice, most importantly because it’s a safety issue.”

Board policy committee Chair Laurie Davis said while no official board action was taken Tuesday night to look at the policy, it will be on the agenda for the next policy committee meeting Nov. 14.

“I’ve heard very clearly the board and public would like us to take this back and begin the process of working on it,” Davis said, adding any changes will likely take more than one meeting.

“This one of those basic safety issues where if a student doesn’t feel safe at school, it’s hard to learn,” Davis said. “If we want to move our students’ achievement forward, we need to make sure they feel safe and well cared for.”

 

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