Learning won’t happen if students don’t feel safe. That’s why Portland’s school board decided Tuesday to discontinue its contract with the city for police officers assigned to patrol its two biggest high schools.

That conclusion may seem upside-down to some members of the community. The school resource officer position came to Portland after the 1999 Columbine High School mass shooting, when many schools around the nation found they could not function because students and staff did not feel safe. Administrators then believed that the presence of a police officer on site would help restore a culture conducive to learning. Over time, these officers have have been useful, welcome additions in a lot of Maine schools, building relationships with students, providing a sympathetic ear or an extra set of hands.

In Portland, however, we are hearing from a significant portion of the student body that feels less safe when an officer is present. The trauma caused by a history of seeing unarmed Black people killed by police officers who are rarely held accountable has created a level of distrust that cannot be ignored. The death of George Floyd while in police custody, and the subsequent wave of protest that swept the nation, demand action by all institutions, not just police departments. Portland school officials are right to examine the impact of racial bias in the schools.

An analysis of U.S. Department of Education data by the ACLU found that Black students are three times more likely to be arrested at school than white students. Meanwhile, Portland has three high schools and its third, Casco Bay High School, manages with no officer.

But opposition to having a school-based officer at Portland and Deering high schools was far from unanimous. Some students and their families spoke about the relationships that they were able to build with an officer in a nonconfrontational setting. We share the concern that some students will lose out on those opportunities and that students of color could end up feeling even more alienated from police officers.

Ultimately, it’s up to the school board and administrators to decide how to manage security and school culture. If they feel that having an armed officer in the building prevents students from feeling safe, it’s up to the board to make sure they provide security in another way. Superintendent Xavier Botana said Tuesday that he would put money that would have paid police officers to pay for professional development and programs that promote equity.

A police force cannot function without the trust of the community, and it’s up to each community to make that relationship work. Portland’s solution might not be the right one for every school district, but it is a reasonable choice in the highly charged atmosphere that currently exists.


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