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The Rural Maine Reporting Project is made possible through the generous support of the Betterment Fund.

Rural Schools Consider Hiring School Resource Officers

Oceanside High School in Rockland, ME

Thursday evening the RSU 13 school board in Rockland voted on whether to authorize the superintendent to negotiate a School Resource Officer position or SRO, a police officer who patrols and works inside schools. The school board decided it wasn't yet ready to vote on the issue, and instead has referred the question for further discussion at an upcoming work session.

Rockland has been working on its proposal for a number of years now, but the idea has recently been floated at other rural schools as well. Now the prospect of school shootings and other problems is forcing the issue onto local agendas.

SROs have been in place for years at some of Maine's bigger districts like Bangor, Portland and Hampden. But more rural towns are considering them as a way to help deal with a number of problems.

"We have a fair amount of issues,” says RSU 13 Superintendent John McDonald. “Substance abuse, split families, generational poverty and so on.”

McDonald says the district is taking a multi-pronged approach in confronting those problems, including the recent hire of three more social workers.

“We really view the SRO, not as a security guard for the school, but as a member of the community and actually serving as an education function as well.”

But it was last month's deadly school shooting in Florida that's brought the prospect of hiring an SRO closer to the top of other local agendas. Lincoln Public Safety Director Daniel Summers says he was invited to a meeting Tuesday to discuss the issue with Lincoln school staff. He says it's still early days, but he favors the idea, even as rural police departments like his grapple with understaffing and slim budgets. Currently, Summers operates on what he calls “minimum staff” with five officers to patrol the town of 5000, along with the surrounding rural areas.

“When you have an incident like the Parkland incident in Florida, you sort of have to prioritize now...what are we talking about?” says Summers. “We're living in a different time, we need to take steps, and it may cost a little bit of money but we need to take a look at it. We have to.”

But SRO's have been the subject of some controversy. Studies have suggested that police presence in a school setting puts more students on a criminal fast track – minority students especially – by channeling them into the juvenile justice system for offenses which at one time would have been handled by the principal and parents. And, as other critics have pointed out, an SRO was present at the time of the Parkland shooting, but that did nothing to prevent the 17 fatalities and 14 injuries that occurred there.

Summers cautions that an SRO is not going to be a cure-all, especially since an officer's time is almost always spread thinly across several schools.

“Having a School Resource Officer tells me one thing, and it tells me that at least the communities are trying to do something to mitigate the risks,” Summers says. “Is it going to be foolproof? I'm not going to be making that promise – I can’t make that promise.”

In Rockland, Superintendent John McDonald says there will be many more meetings and discussions before any position is given a greenlight. Among the hurdles is funding. He says the current plan is to apply for federal grant money which would pay 75 percent of the SRO's salary. The remaining 25 percent, he says, ideally would be split between the city and the school district budget.

Other communities discussing a possible SRO position include RSU 39, which encompasses schools in Caribou, Limestone and Stockholm, as well as AOS 47 which includes Orrington and Dedham.

This story was updated March 2 at 11:36 a.m.