Portland Police Chief Frank Clark answers questions from the Portland Board of Education Oct. 29 about how body cameras would be used in schools. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — As the Board of Education considers the use of body cameras by high school resource officers, it should also look at the officers’ role in general, its chairman says.

The board held a workshop Oct. 29 to discuss an update to its resource officer agreement with the Portland Police Department to include a provision about body cameras, which the department started using on a trial basis last year.

The board should take this opportunity to “take a broad lens” look at the entire school resource officer program, Chairman Roberto Rodriguez said at the workshop.

“The fact we have to renew (the agreement) lends itself to have that larger conversation and educate the community and the district about what the (school resource officers’) roles actually are,” he said.

An updated agreement between the schools and the police department, which will be reviewed again Tuesday, Nov.12, would permit officers to use body cameras “only when responding to cases of suspected criminal activity or when assisting school personnel with matters that may result in disorderly or otherwise disruptive behavior.”

Board member Timothy Atkinson said he was hesitant to approve a new school resource officer agreement in general because he worries about the message it sends to students when there is an armed police officer in their school every day.

“I think we have other opportunities to keep our schools safe that don’t involve an armed daily presence,” he said.

But most others at the workshop, including Police Chief Frank Clark, said there is no question that the officers belong in the schools.

“Not having a school resource officer in a school, given what’s going on nationally, would be, from my perspective, negligent,” he said.

Student Jondrell Norris, who represents Portland High School on the school board, said an officer is absolutely needed at his school.

“The primary purpose of these individuals is for safety,” Norris said. “I am incredibly grateful to have Officer (Michael) Bennis in my school and speaking for Deering High School, they are lucky to have Officer (Steven) Black at Deering. They  serve a really important purpose ensuring our safety psychologically and in reality.”

That importance could be seen, Norris said, on Oct. 22 when Portland High School was shut down because of a rumor someone was in the school with a gun.

“The program is working well, especially with having the officers we do in these schools,” said Abdullahi Ahmed, Deering High School’s co-principal.

Superintendent Xavier Botana said school resource officers “play an integral role in our schools,” addressing safety and behavior issues. They are key members of school administration and someone students can relate to in a way that may not be possible with teachers or other staff members, he said.

Cameras would not be used in places such as locker rooms or restrooms unless “the activation is required for the performance of official duties,” or during routine meetings with parents, students or staff, the agreement says.

Clark said the cameras’ recordings will be stored at Portland Police Department headquarters and accessible only to police officers. The department would authorize how the recordings would be released to the public, parents, students or school officials. Parents of minor students captured on the video can request a time to review the recording at the police station.

Michael Kebede, policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine, said his organization is worried about the use of body cameras in schools because they erode students’ right to privacy.

“Body cams make sense elsewhere, but not so much in schools,” he said.

Portland High School Principal Sheila Jepson doesn’t worry how the cameras would be used in her school.

“I can see 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.

Black, who has been a school resource officer for 13 years, said he does not expect to use the body camera often.

Board member Marnie Morrione said she could support the use of body cameras in the schools, but not without “some well-thought-out presentation to our parents and students” to remind people the cameras are not being proposed as a “reaction to something happening in our schools.”

 

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