Alex Vitale, author of “The End of Policing,” speaks during a discussion on school policing Thursday night at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. Other speakers on the panel were, from left, Portland Police Chief Frank Clark, South Portland School Resource Officer Al Giusto, Portland school board Chairman Roberto Rodriguez, and Al Cleveland of Maine Youth Justice. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

As Portland Public Schools looks at revising its agreement with the police department to include provisions for body cameras on officers, the process has led to broader questions about the role officers play in schools.

Are officers useful in preventing school violence? Does their presence intimidate students? Would schools be better served to invest in social workers and counselors rather than police?

Those questions and others were among the topics addressed Thursday night in a community discussion at the University of Southern Maine titled “The End of School Policing?”

“School policing is not effective,” said Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College in New York, author of the book “The End of Policing” and the featured speaker at Thursday’s event. “Research has been done showing students don’t even feel safer in schools with officers. They don’t feel safer in schools with metal detectors. This is deeply problematic.”

Vitale, who said schools would be better served by investing in counselors rather than police, spoke on the topic of police officers in schools for about 30 minutes before a panel of local experts weighed in.

The discussion came as Portland Public Schools is examining a proposal to activate body cameras on the two school officers in the district to bring them in line with a Portland Police Department move to equip all its officers with cameras.

The body camera issue has also led some school board members to question why officers are needed in schools at all.

School board Chairman Roberto Rodriguez said Thursday night that while he values a strong relationship with the police department, he questions whether the $130,000 the district currently spends on the two officers at Deering and Portland high schools would be better invested elsewhere.

He also expressed concern about the “normalizing” of police officers in schools, which he said changes the way the community looks at how behavioral problems should be addressed.

“I’m not here to advocate that we not have any interaction with the police department, quite the opposite,” Rodriguez said. “I’m here for us to advocate to find ways to create those partnerships, to achieve some of the positive effects but to avoid these unintended consequences that are negatively affecting the quality of education for vulnerable members of our school community.”

Other panelists stressed that officers are key to building relationships between schools and the community and the work they do can help reduce the number of students who get involved in the criminal justice system.

“The (officers) bring a visual presence, enhanced ability to respond within our schools and enhance the feeling of safety,” said Police Chief Frank Clark, who was also among the panelists. “They’re seen as a positive role model and mentor to students that sometimes make a connection with an officer that they might not make with a teacher or social worker.”

Al Giusto, an officer at South Portland High School, talked about his school’s policy to divert students from going to court for drug or alcohol offenses.

“I have kids coming up to me giving me vape pens,” Giusto said. “Things that are happening at home, and they come and see me. It’s all about building those relationships.”

Vitale, however, questioned what value is added by having a police officer. “By having him be a police officer, what does that bring to that interaction that couldn’t be accomplished in some other way that doesn’t come with those collateral consequences?” he asked.

“There are trade-offs and opportunity costs,” Vitale said. “The harms to young people don’t only come in the form of anonymous intruders. We have a real problem with youth suicide but have eviscerated mental health counseling in schools. Every dollar we put into school policing is a dollar we don’t have available for school counseling.”

Also on Thursday’s panel was Al Cleveland, campaign manager for Maine Youth Justice, a group aimed at ending youth incarceration in the state and finding community-based alternatives. One of its goals is to eliminate police officers in schools in Maine, Cleveland said.

Employing restorative justice tactics and investing in resources like sports and after-school activities that provide creative and emotional outlets for young people are preferable to investing resources in police, Cleveland said.

Members of the public also had a chance to ask questions of the panelists Thursday night, and they ranged from questions about how Portland officers are selected and trained to work in schools to the impact they have on students.

Bobbi Maschino, a criminology student at USM, asked the panel whether there have been any successful instances of school districts removing officers and putting the money spent on them into other resources.

Vitale said there are few such examples as most of the momentum around policing is currently in the opposite direction, with most schools adding officers rather than looking at removing them. He also cautioned against removing officers without the proper supports in place.

“One of the mistakes we sometimes make is to say, ‘Well, we just want to take the SRO’s out because they’re a source of harm,'” Vitale said. “That leaves teachers in the lurch without any support systems to manage classrooms and they’re just going to go back to practices of excluding students they can’t manage with limited resources.”

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