This article was updated 8/31/20
By Kathreen Harrison
The national conversation about police violence that was ignited by the murder of George Floyd has sparked discussions in school districts nationwide about whether the presence of school resource officers (SROs) – career law enforcement officers who work in the schools – should be discontinued. In Maine, at its June meeting, the Portland school board voted 7-2, after a lengthy discussion, to remove the district’s two SROs, who had been stationed at Portland High School and Deering High School. Sanford and Kennebunk have also seen efforts to remove SROs from the schools, both unsuccessful. Bangor recently voted to keep their SRO officer, who works primarily at Bangor High School.
On Monday, August 31, the Lewiston School Committee approved a school policing reform proposal 5-4 that was first brought by School Committee Member Kiernan I. Majerus-Collins of Ward 3 in June. The proposal called for reducing the number of SROs in Lewiston schools from four to three; eliminating the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program; re-stationing remaining SROs by putting one in Lewiston High School, one in Lewiston Middle School, and making one responsible for elementary schools — but not stationing that SRO at any of them permanently; using the savings from the elimination of the fourth SRO position to hire a restorative justice coordinator at Lewiston High School.
The proposal originally was set for discussion on July 13, however that meeting was postponed. Megan Parks, who has been chair of the committee for less than two months following the sudden resignation of the previous chair, Monique Roy, said that the meeting was postponed to allow for remote participation by the public. A new Zoom platform was inaugurated at the August 31 meeting that allowed a raised hands feature, allowing those not comfortable writing English – or attending the meeting in person – to voice their thoughts. The discussion in Lewiston over the summer about SROs in the school was heated, with people lining up on both sides of the issue, and reports of threats against individuals on social media.
According to “School-Based Policing in Maine,” a report out of the Cutler Institute of the University of Southern Maine Muskie School of Public Service, the presence of SROs in schools dates from the 1950s, when the first officers were placed in schools in Flint, Michigan. The Clinton Administration oversaw a huge expansion of police officers in schools, and gun violence in the years since the 1999 Columbine school shooting continued to fuel public support for SROs. By school year 2015-2016, 42% of public schools in America employed at least one full- or part-time police officer. Generally, funding for these officers is shared between school districts and police departments. In Maine, according to the report, the number of schools employing SROs jumped from 67 to 82 between spring and fall of 2018.
Those in favor of SROs believe that officers in schools help keep students safe. Others praise the relationships many SROs build with students, which they say can help keep kids from misbehaving and getting in trouble with the law. However “Police in Schools,” a 2019 book by the Canadian team of Linda Duxbury and Craig Bennell, indicates there is little systematic research on the topic. Their study concludes that SRO programs can provide real value for students, but SRO benefits rely on having well-designed programs, standards, and outstanding personnel. Those against SROs point to data indicating that Black students get referred by SROs to law enforcement at a higher rate than white students. According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, during the 2015–16 school year, Black students represented 15% of the total student enrollment, but 31% of students who were referred to law enforcement or arrested – a 16-percentage-point disparity. In Lewiston in 2015, Black students accounted for 31.4% of the district’s school population, but 69.2% of referrals to law enforcement.
Kiernan Majerus-Collins, the Lewiston School Committee member whose proposal was on the August 31 agenda, in advance of the meeting said that he expected “a well attended evening, and a spirited discussion. We expect to hear from a lot of people. Over the summer we have received 100s of emails, many phone calls, petitions for and against the proposal. The reality is that folks in Lewiston have widely different perspectives on this. Everything from people arguing that this does not go far enough to folks arguing that we need an SRO in every school.” Majerus-Collins said that due to barriers to certain voices being heard, such as those who have language barriers, economic challenges, or child care barriers, he expected to hear from “a public that is more privileged, whiter, more favorable toward SROs on Monday than is fully representative of the City.” In the end, a number of representatives of the New Mainer community spoke at the meeting, including Lewiston City Councilor Safiya Khalid and Fowsia Musse.
“Our schools are beautifully diverse – rich in culture, diversity, backgrounds,” said Khalid. “But I can’t express how many students have shared with me evidence of discrimination in Lewiston schools. It is evident that the schools have failed our Black and brown kids. This is not about politics. This is about needing mentoring programs, school psychologists, cultural integration support – many positions critical to our kids that are not funded – please don’t fail our students again tonight.”
“In my entire existence of 15 years in Lewiston I have not witnessed one day when an SRO was connecting with a child of color,” Muse said during public comment period at the school committee meeting. After the meeting, pleased that the proposal had passed, she explained,”We need more social workers, better paid teachers, and more support for teachers so they can handle distressed children themselves instead of calling in officers with punitive measures.”
Key findings from the Cutler report are that SROs operate with little oversight, and there are no standardized SRO training requirements from the federal government. In addition, there is no state oversight of officers, and only minimal local oversight. As a result, the “skills and preferences of individual officers” determine how helpful – or not – SROs are to students in preventing misbehavior and potential involvement with the police system. Some states have created statutory requirements for SROs, legislating what behaviors on a student’s part warrant arrest and what don’t. Maine, however, has no such rules in place. Lewiston has had SROs in the school for decades without a memorandum of understanding in place between the school system and the police department, which has resulted in no tracking of data. The police chief requested the creation of an MOU last year, however Lewiston’s previous superintendent pushed the request aside, and nothing was done. The adoption of an MOU was discussed at the meeting, and approved.
Miriam, a mother and a former teacher in Maine (who prefers not to use her full name for fear of retaliation) emphasizes the lack of adequate training for SROs – and for teachers – in child development, neurodivergence, and trauma. “We have a school system of predominantly white educators who don’t have the training or resources to get the students what they need. When behaviors arise, they involve school police. It’s a reflection of what’s happening in the greater community. There is inherent bias and low training. And students with involvement with SROs have 12 times the likelihood of failing to graduate. It’s a vicious cycle. Kids with unmet needs getting in trouble with teachers, and then SROs getting involved.”
The Cutler Institute’s report notes that Maine does not meet national professional standards for support professionals who are trained to serve children suffering from trauma. According to the data, schools in Maine employ an average of one counselor per 303 students, while the national standards recommend one counselor per 250 students; one social worker per 617 students, against a recommended one per 250 students; one psychologist per 1,830 students, instead of one per 500-700 students.
Fowsia Muse, Executive Director of Maine Community Integration in Lewiston, emphasizes that some SROs, such as the officer at Connors Elementary School, are “loved by everyone…a lot of the kids call him ‘Grandpa.’ ” However, “middle and high school is where they start the school-to-prison pipeline. There are a lot of cases of Black Somali kids who have ‘terrorizing’ on their school records.”
Follow Amjambo Africa for continued coverage of the movement to reallocate funding from SROs to other support personnel.