PORTLAND — The  Portland Board of Education is expected to decide next week whether to keep school resource police officers on the job at Deering and Portland high schools.

The board on Tuesday, June 30, will vote on a resolution to absolve the school department’s agreement with the Portland Police Department to staff resource officers at the two schools. The resolution also prohibits staff and students from calling police to the schools unless there is a “real and immediate risk of serious physical harm,” and it earmarks the $150,000 appropriated for the resource officer program to “further the district’s unfunded equity priorities.”

The issue arose last fall when the school board was debating whether to allow School Resource Officers Michael Bennis and Steven Black to use body cameras on the campuses. No decision was made on the cameras, but the Black Lives Matter movement has revived the issue of police officers’ roles in schools.  Black Lives Matter activists argue that armed officers in schools make students feel unsafe and feed the school to prison pipeline.

Board member Marnie Morrione said she was uncomfortable with the resolution because its language relies on national data about school resource officers.

“I fail to see how that meets and matches what’s happening in Portland,” Morrione said at a workshop and public hearing last week.

Portland is not an exception when it comes to racial bias, board member Adam Burk said, and the school resource officer program is “hurting black and brown kids everyday.”

Superintendent Xavier Botana, who will offer his recommendation at the June 30 meeting, said if the agreement is discontinued, a “contingency plan” would be needed to  ensure safety at the schools.

“We don’t have a contingency plan in place. It is something we’ll need to do if the board decided to eliminate that relationship,” he said.

Botana said the board also should look at other policies involving the relationship between schools and police.

“There are a lot of ways we interact with police. Whether we have (an agreement) for school resource officers, I feel the board needs to look at all the policies comprehensively and decided is it what we want to be doing. Does it make sense?” Botana said.

Attempts to reach Bennis and Black through Police Chief Frank Clark were unsuccessful.

During the hearing, Savannah Mirisola-Sullivan, a Portland elementary school teacher who previously worked in Chicago, said “trauma is increased by bringing an armed police officer in a school no matter how compassionate and committed the individuals school resource officers are.”

Krystian Bigosinski, a sports medicine doctor in Portland, called using school resource officers to keep schools safe, a “flawed system and a detriment to the health of our schools, our students and our community.”

Hamdia Ahmed, a 2015 graduate of Portland High School said she has never felt safe with resource officers in the schools.

“I believe schools need more resources, not resource officers,” she said.

More than 800 members of the community have signed a petition to end the schools relationship with the police department.

But Portland High School parent Susana LeDoux, said while she agrees there is a “massive problem with racism and police in general,” she wants the resources officers to stay. She’d rather see more relationship building between officers and students, she said.

“I don’t deny there is an issue, but I am uncomfortable taking it away without something else in place,” LeDoux said.

Stacey Hang, who has two children in Portland schools and is a school nurse in Yarmouth, told board members she also wants to the resource officers to remain.

“We need to have all hands on deck as possible (to help students). SROs give us a different avenue for students who need help,” Hang said. The Yarmouth school district is looking to add a school resource officer, she said.

Last week, Ashleigh and Gabby Daniels, who will be juniors at Portland High School, began circulating a petition urging the board to retain the officer program.

“While we acknowledge the systematic biases of policing, we believe Officer Bennis and Officer Black … build community and enhance school safety. Now is the time to be building bridges and relationships, and to enhance our collective sense of community,” they wrote.

Bennis, they said, makes their school safer and helped, for example, to maintain a sense of safety during a bomb threat earlier this school year.

“We call on the school board members to reject the proposed resolution calling for the removal of the SROs because more voices need to be heard and there is no alternative plan in place to address student safety at our schools,” the Daniels wrote.

According to surveys done by the district this spring, more than two-thirds of the 83 respondents at Deering High School support having a school resource officer at the school, and close to 90% feeler safer as a result. At Portland High School, more than 60% of the 283 respondents, which included 59 students of color, “really like” having an officer at the school. Just 7% said they did not feel safer with the officer in the school.

Portland is not the only district under pressure to discontinue SRO arrangements with local police departments.

On June 16 voters in Regional School Unit 21, which includes students from Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Arundel, decided to keep its school resource officer program despite calls to remove the officers and allocate those resources to fund more counselors and social workers.

In South Portland, Superintendent Ken Kunin said his district will discuss the use of its two resource officers this fall.

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