PORTLAND — For the first time in five years, the new school year will begin without an agreement with Portland Police to staff school resource officers at Deering and Portland high schools.

Last week the Portland Board of Education discontinued the school resource program after a push by local supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement to remove police officers from schools. Now work begins to reexamine school policies related to law enforcement.

Many who spoke at a June 30 meeting, including Portland High School teachers Ileen DaPonte and Olivia Bean, urged the board not to remove officers until a safety plan is put into place.  Fellow teacher Ericka Lee-Winship said she supports taking the time over the next year to explore the pros and cons of school resource officers.

“They clearly play a role in schools and meet a set of needs, but that’s not to say we can’t meet those needs in a different way,” she said.

Violet Sulka-Hewes, a 2017 Deering High School graduate, said students should be at the center of that discussion and “should be given the most voice and power.”

Superintendent Xavier Botana said a full review of district policies could take six months to a year and even without officers in the schools, there would still need to be some sort of relationship between Portland police officers and the schools for security at large events, such as athletics and performances, and to respond to emergencies.

Botana and Board of Education chairman Roberto Rodriguez could not be reached to comment on when that review would begin.

“I am confident both sides want to continue to keep students safe. My concern is there is a line in the sand now,” said Jeff Upton, president of the Maine School Resource Officer Association. “I have not spoken to the Portland Police Department or Portland Schools, but that line has been drawn saying ‘We don’t want you in our buildings.’ Is that daily? Is that ever? They need to get to that next step before the schools can set up a safety plan.”

George Shaler, co-author of “School-Based Policing in Maine: A Study on School Resource Officers in Maine’s Public Schools,” said: “Working with school administrators, teachers and students, local law enforcement can play an important role in determining how schools address potential vulnerabilities.”

Sophia Tuchinsky, a Deering High School junior, said with the removal of officers from the schools, she would like to see more mental health services offered. Shaler, a senior research associate and director of the Maine Statistical Analysis Center at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine, agrees that should be the district’s immediate focus.

“What I learned from doing the study is that many schools seem to think that deployment of (a resource officer) answers the school safety question.  To me it is so much more than placing an officer in a school,” Shaler said.  “I have been working on school health issues since 1995, and what I have observed over time is that young people are in need of behavioral and mental health services.”

The $152,000 that the district would have allocated to the school resource program will now be used for school safety and security needs, as well as unmet equity needs and district-wide staff training and professional development in things such as restorative justice and trauma sensitive practices, deescalation and implicit bias.

Upton, a school resource officer at Marshwood High School in South Berwick, said he is concerned that without a school resource officer in the building, schools will not have anyone “to bridge that gap between schools and law enforcement” about students who may be impacted in the classroom by a run-in with the law outside the classroom.

Upton added that the school district will have to realize when a police officer is needed to respond to an emergency in the school, “they might not be able to respond right away,” especially if it is a busy time for the police department.

Portland High School students and sisters Gabby and Ashleigh Daniels, were adamant the officers should stay.

“(They) touch the lives of our diverse school in ways our community is unaware of,” said Gabby Daniels, who, along with Ashleigh, organized a petition to keep officers in the schools.

“We are standing up for what we believe is best for our schools,” Ashleigh said.

Jondall Norris, a 2020 Portland High School graduate, said while he feels the school resource officers should be removed, doing so immediately would impact the workload on staff.

“If we remove all the roles the (resource officers take on), it would put an unnecessary strain on the administrators of the school and the teachers and that would boil down to students. I don’t think it’s a rational decision to immediately remove (them),” Norris said.

However, Teagan Moon, a student at Portland High School, said now is the time to act.

“Having a police presence in the schools turns issues that should be handled by the school into issues that are handled by law enforcement,” Moon said. “This leads to arrests for issues that would be better handled by the school.”

Portland Schools joins a growing list of school districts, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, that have removed school resource officers from their schools effective immediately. Officers will be removed in Denver schools by next June and there are movements underway to discontinue programs in Los Angeles and Chicago.

Locally, several school districts will follow Portland’s lead and rethink their school resource officer programs. South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin said his district will discuss the use of its two resource officers this fall. The Lewiston School Committee talked about the future of the school resource officer program June 22 and will be voting on whether to reduce the presence of officers in the schools later this month.

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.

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