School Resource Officer Ken Strout of the Lewiston Police Department walks back to his seat after answering questions from the Lewiston School Committee on Monday evening. Strout has an office at Connors Elementary School and travels to all Lewiston public elementary schools. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — The School Committee voted 5-4 Monday night to approve a proposal to cap the number of police in schools and to discontinue the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program.

Lewiston School Committee member Lynnea Hawkins says that she does not approve of having police officers in Lewiston schools, during a committee meeting Monday evening. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The proposal put forth by member Kiernan Majerus-Collins called for a reduction from four to three officers.

“Context is important when considering this reduction,” Majerus-Collins said. “We’ve budgeted for four school resource officers, but we’ve never had four. If this proposal passes, Lewiston will remain one of the most heavily policed districts in the state.”

The proposal calls for using the money in the budget for a fourth SRO to hire a restorative justice coordinator at Lewiston High School. Restorative justice is a way of resolving conflicts by involving parties in discussion.

The motion included stationing one police officer at Lewiston High School, one at the middle school and a third at the Longley Building, the Dingley Building or the Lewiston police station.

No officer would be permanently assigned to any elementary school but would be available if needed.

The Drug Abuse Resistance Education program would be eliminated. Majerus-Collins called it an ineffective program. Studies, including one by the surgeon general, showed that “it doesn’t work” to deter kids from using drugs.

Aisha Hall, the social-emotional learning coordinator for Lewiston schools, said studies have shown higher rates of drug use among students who went through the DARE program.

As a woman of color with two children in the school system, she noted that there is evidence that the most vulnerable students are negatively affected by police in schools.

“As our society debates police brutality, many of our students do not feel safe,” Hall said. “They feel threatened, on guard and restricted.”

In a draft memorandum of understanding presented by interim Superintendent Jake Langlais, the DARE program would be replaced by a program that would address drugs, bullying and de-escalation.

DARE Officer Kenneth Strout, based at Connors Elementary School, works with pupils at all five elementary schools.

Asked to clarify whether Strout would be considered a “permanent presence” at Connors, Majerus-Collins said he believed that Strout continuing to have an office at Connors would be consistent with the proposal if Strout were to spend 20% of his time at each elementary school.

Lewiston School Committee member Kiernan Majerus-Collins, right, proposes Monday to keep three school resource officers and use the funding for a fourth officer to hire a restorative justice coordinator instead. Lewiston interim Superintendent Jake Langlais is at left. Daryn Slover/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Strout made an emotional appeal to the committee to keep the program because it helps build relationships with kids and addresses bullying, peer pressure and stress.

“Do I think it can get better?” he said. “Absolutely. We could minimize some categories to focus on what’s pertinent to our kids.”

He said he tries to connect with all students and to be relevant to them.

“I grew up in Portland in a not very good neighborhood,” he said. “My mother was an alcoholic. I was the kid on the other side.”

He said he loved working with kids. “Every kid in this district can be successful. Kids in this district need every resource they can get,” he said to loud applause.

More than three dozen people commented on the proposal during the five-hour meeting. Majerus-Collins said the split of for and against was about 50-50.

Former School Committee member Linda Scott said she was hearing two things: overwhelming support for Strout and concerns about racial disparity in Lewiston schools.

“I know for a fact that there is racial disparity in our schools,” she said.

She asked the committee to vote down the proposal and look at the issue more closely, visit the schools and look at what can be done to change what is lacking.

Indeed, support for and against the motion broke along racial lines, with New Mainers and other people of color asking the committee to approve the motion.

Police officers and Lewiston Public Schools employees including teachers, a custodian and a former school nurse, opposed the proposal.

Fowsia Musse of Auburn scolded those who harped on safety as a reason to keep police in schools.

“Safety is something none of you people sitting here can tell me about,” she said. “Walking from country to country, empty stomach and barefoot, just to seek safety. That’s why we’re here in this country, for safety.”

But armed officers in schools does not mean safety for children of color, she said.

“This is a problem of race and inequality,” she said, noting that Maine is 90% white, but its juvenile detention center is 90% Black.

“One resource that’s very obvious is the school to prison pipeline,” Musse said.

Committee Chairwoman Megan Parks and members Elgin Physic, Bruce Damon and Tanya Whitlow voted against the proposal.

According to the draft memorandum of understanding crafted between administrators and police, the department would provide three officers to the school district, two resource officers and one “program” officer to replace the DARE program.

Future hires would be trained by the National Association of School Resource Officers and would train with the superintendent or designee on child development, de-escalation, cultural competency and aspects of school law.

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