NORWAY — More than three months after Guy E. Rowe Elementary School’s resource officer Holli Pullen was removed from her position with no explanation to parents or the community, the Advertiser Democrat has learned that Maine School Administrative District 17 suspended its arrangement with Norway Police Department in February – banning Pullen from the building – until a different officer could be assigned SRO duties.

On Feb. 15, SAD 17’s Superintendent Heather Manchester informed the Norway town manager that per Section 4 (C) of the two parties’ memo of understanding regarding the school resource officer role, she was temporarily dissolving the agreement. This notification was made one week after learning the Oxford County District Attorney’s office concluded an incident – investigated by a third party, the Oxford County Sheriff’s Department – that resulted in Pullen handcuffing a student at Rowe School late last year did not merit criminal charges being filed against the officer.

On Dec. 6, Pullen was on duty at Rowe and entered the school’s day treatment room where a fifth grade student was in crisis. According to a redacted witness statement provided by SAD 17 to the Advertiser Democrat, the student had assaulted a peer during recess and then an adult in the day treatment room.

When Pullen entered the room the student continued to escalate, charging at Pullen and other adults and retreating; flipping tables; throwing objects at them including books and a stapler; physically attacking them; and making violent threats.

After the student hit a building administrator in the chest and began punching and kicking Pullen, the officer at first restrained the student and then placed them in handcuffs provided by another Norway police officer Pullen had called for backup.

Further detail can be gleaned from a Feb. 7 review completed by District Attorney Neil McLean after assessing six witness statements (including district/Rowe staff), Norway police and OCSO reports and viewing 87 minutes of police body camera video.

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“Officer Pullen does not physically restrain the minor until more than 15 minutes into the incident,” McLean wrote to Oxford County Deputy Chief James Urquhart. “In an effort to restrain the minor initially…at approximately 19 minutes and 30 seconds [into the body cam video], Pullen decides to use handcuffs provided by another officer who arrives after the incident has been ongoing.”

McLean said the video footage was consistent with officers’ reports and witness statements and concluded that he found no criminal violation had occurred and the district attorney’s office would not pursue the matter any further.

Now, the school district and town of Norway are at a impasse, with communications between Manchester and Norway Town Manager Jeff Wilson becoming heated by mid-February.

In the Feb. 15 email from Manchester to Wilson, where she informs him of her decision to suspend the SRO arrangement, she cited SAD 17 Policy KLG Relations with Law Enforcement, which authorizes district administrators to seek assistant of law enforcement when they believe there is a substantial threat to the welfare and safety of a school, student or staff.

Section 5 of the agreement states “Both the Town and the School agree that non-criminal student disciplinary matters shall remain the responsibility of teachers and administrators, not the SRO. The SRO shall refrain from being involved in the enforcement of disciplinary rules that do not constitute violations of law, except to support School personnel in maintaining a safe school environment. The SRO shall not be a disciplinarian.”

The police department argues that there was, in fact, a violation of law when the child assaulted staff prior to Pullen’s arrival and when the behaviors escalated there was clearly a safety risk. The law applies to all, regardless of age. Wilson stated that video and statements confirmed at least 11 instances of assault by the student.

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During the Dec. 6 incident, Manchester wrote, Pullen intervened in non-critical student matters without being requested. She added that Pullen violated SAD 17 Policy KLGA-R1 standards for SRO professional conduct and referred to three other similar incidents in 2023 involving the officer to allege a pattern of poor judgment.

While documents regarding the Dec. 6 incident and investigation obtained by the Advertiser Democrat from SAD 17 and the town of Norway through Freedom of Access Act requests confirm that the district and town agree Pullen had placed handcuffs on a student, the two sides are at a stalemate on the circumstances leading up to the situation and how to proceed.

After Manchester wrote no staff member had requested Pullen’s assistance, Wilson responded by email the next day that Pullen had, in fact been called to the room and told she could go in to ensure an adult with the student was safe. He pointed out that Policy KLGA R-1 states that “SROs who observe violations of policies and/or rules may intervene with students to stop the behavior and shall report violations to appropriate administrators,” and also “may request assistance in controlling unsafe and/or disruptive student behavior.”

SROs are not district employees. They must follow law enforcement protocol and report to their respective departments, not school administration. Further, the state Department of Education states in Section 05-071 Chapter 033 Section 6, 1-A, that “Physical restraint may be used only as an emergency intervention when the behavior of a student presents a rick of injury or harm to the student or others, and only after other less intrusive interventions have failed or been deemed inappropriate.”

Wilson continued, “Officer Pullen was very much summonsed to the room where this student was assaulting staff …[summonsed] by name,” and was told she could go in to make sure the adult was safe, “…thus the SRO was asked to respond to a safety situation involving juvenile criminal conduct” and Pullen had been made aware the student had assaulted someone before her arrival.

According to the police department, the child’s parent had no issue with Pullen’s use of restraint, indicating that this sort of behavior was not uncommon at home as well and “scary.”

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In her Feb. 15 email, Manchester had informed Wilson that “prior to the SRO’s presence, that student was sitting on the floor as staff waited for an administrator to arrive,” and it was Pullen’s physical interactions with them that instigated and escalated their behavior. In his response Wilson countered that the student had threatened and assaulted Rowe staff before Pullen’s arrival in the treatment room.

Wilson also challenged Manchester about two other instances where SROs — working in SAD 17 schools — handcuffed students during altercations with no noted consequences. “Officer Pullen should not be reprimanded, dismissed, or punished for doing her job,” he wrote.

Asked by the Advertiser Democrat about the contradictions between her, Wilson’s and the district attorney’s interpretations of witness statements and corroborating video, Manchester provided the following statement: “Officer Pullen was not requested by an administrator or the lead teacher. My conclusion is based on my review of the video and discussions with witnesses…. Just because her conduct wasn’t criminal doesn’t mean it was acceptable.

“Officer Pullen did not follow our internal procedures and was not requested to intervene; she instigated and escalated the student. When she did that, she made the situation worse, especially for the student. You would need to ask the Town about the officer’s accountability — she’s not a District employee.

“I don’t see how handcuffing a student is justified by possible minor property damage and people were not in harm’s way — until the officer escalated the student. The proper protocol is for staff to wait out a student who is throwing things, not to use force to throw them to the floor and handcuff them and swear at them.”

According to all the witness statements the handcuffs were not applied until numerous staff and the SRO had been assaulted.

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Manchester was also asked by the newspaper how many instances where school resources officers handcuffed a student have occurred and how they were resolved. She responded that such situations are highly unusual. “There have been one or two in the past two years at the high school. We have not heard of any other elementary or middle school students being handcuffed by an SRO,” she wrote. She does not clarify how those instances were resolved.

According to law enforcement sources, instances of handcuff use have happened with two different high school SROs with no consequences.

Among the messages between Manchester and Wilson during the month of January are indications that SAD 17 intends to update its agreements with Norway, Oxford and Paris, the three towns that supply trained school resource officers to Rowe, Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School, Paris Elementary, Oxford Elementary and Oxford Hills Middle schools.

Paris Police Chief Michael Dailey reported to the Advertiser Democrat that Paris has placed SROs in schools dating back to 2019 but the memo of understanding he had on file from 2020 was unsigned. He issued the following statement:

“SROs are just that, a resource, and are not expected to take on administrative roles within the school. Their primary purpose is to provide support and assistance to the school administration at various levels, including high school, middle school, and elementary school, while at the same time promoting and building positive relationships between law enforcement and the student body. Their overall primary objective is to collaborate with administrators and their staff to ensure a safe learning environment for all students.

“SROs comply with applicable criminal statutes and the Constitution from a law enforcement standpoint, similar to officers outside of a school setting. They are responsible for enforcing laws and assisting in maintaining the physical security and safety of the school to which they are assigned. SROs have access to certain data and information that school administrators can access, surpassing the access levels of our other officers, including myself. However, it is crucial for SROs to adhere to relevant confidentiality laws when accessing such information.”

Oxford’s agreement with SAD 17 was also last updated in 2020. Police Chief Rickie Jack told the newspaper last week that the first priority for his officers, including SROs, is to conduct themselves in accordance with police department protocols, which are established by state statute. He followed up with this statement:

“Our SRO’s involvements with the schools are to assist and teach various safety programs, law related presentations, teach the DARE program and assist the administration with attendance, hall supervision and truancy issues. The SRO follows all school policies regarding school records and helps ensure the safety of the school, it’s students and faculty. He follows the general laws of Title 17A.”

Pullen was a patrol officer in Norway before being assigned to Rowe Elementary and has returned to patrol duties. The town has no short-term plans to rotate a new officer into the elementary school.

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