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It's A New School Year, And Maine Schools Are Taking New Safety Measures

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
RSU 4 school resource officer John Dalbec speaks with a student in the cafeteria of Oak Hill High School in Wales.

In the wake of the fatal school shooting in Parkland, Florida earlier this year, schools across Maine are taking steps to respond and increasing security measures.

Some are adding security cameras, some are stocking tourniquets, and several have hired new school resource officers to patrol the hallways. While supporters of these new positions say they help make the community feel more secure, civil liberties advocates say the increased police presence could bring its own negative consequences.

RSU 4 Resource Officer John Dalbec's normal school day might take him to five different buildings, from Sabattus to Litchfield in central Maine.

While part of the job is security-related, much of it is counseling. At lunchtime, students walks into Dalbec's office to tell him about an issue with a few other girls. By the end of the meeting, they're talking about college.

"So what we've have to do is get your college stuff. Do appointments this week," he tells her. "Then we'll start figuring stuff out.”

Later in the day, he might work with fourth-graders and help with literacy.

“At 8:30, the town of Sabattus empties out, those folks are gone. They put their children into our protection,” Dalbec says. "Our job is to put the castles around them, protect them. And do what we can for them, academically and emotionally."

The resource officer position is new to RSU 4, prompted in part by February school shooting in Parkland, Florida. In the weeks that followed, threats of school violence rose across the country, including an incident at the district's Oak Hill High School that forced it to close for a day.

"It's paramount," says Oak Hill High School Principal Marco Aliberti. "It's a very important piece to the school. To make sure we're safe and secure. And make sure we can focus on the academic aspects of the building. And if there are kids who need support, we can do it.”

Districts across the state are taking a similar step. While few official numbers are available, media reports indicate that at least a dozen more officers were budgeted for this school year. An informal poll from the Maine School Management Association this spring found more than one-third of responding districts were adding school resource officers.

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Maine Public
RSU 4 school resource officer John Dalbec stands in the courtyard of Oak Hill High School in Wales. Dalbec's position was added to the district this fall.

But some are wary of the push to bring more police officers into schools.

“The criminal justice system really can't be our go-to answer to every problem," says Alison Beyea, the executive director at the ACLU of Maine.

Beyea’s organization has long been concerned about police in schools, arguing that their presence could lead to more arrests and push more students into the juvenile justice system.

“This new trend is really embedding police officers into schools,” she says. “And it's really blurring the line between law enforcement and educators. And, unfortunately, there's very little oversight and guidance in this process.”

Beyea is particularly worried about underrepresented groups, including students of color and those with disabilities. According to recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, black students and those with disabilities in Maine are referred to law enforcement at rates nearly double that of white students.

Other groups are raising concerns about proper training. Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, says that as many new officers are transitioning into schools, it is not clear if they have a strong foundation of knowledge in topics like school law or child development.

"That's been a concern of mine since I started doing this job almost eight years ago," Canady says. "That we might have people, across this country, who go to school as a law enforcement officer with nothing more than their original academy training. It's just not enough to work in this unique environment."

Earlier this year, Canady's group visited Maine and provided basic SRO training for 43 school staff. Many districts that Maine Public spoke with indicated that they were sending their new SROs to similar programs. However, like most states, Maine has no formal training requirement for school resource officers.

As for concerns about how school police might be misused in dispensing discipline, many school officials believe that there are proven ways to set boundaries.

Pender Makin is the assistant superintendent of the Brunswick School Department and also serves on the state's Juvenile Justice Advisory Group. She says her district has established a "memorandum of understanding." It spells out exactly what an officer can and can’t do.

“The one thing we want to avoid, at all costs, is the presence of an SRO lead to an increased involvement of kids in the juvenile justice system,” Makin says. “We don't want schools to be a point of entry for anybody, ideally.”

Makin says that with that clear separation, she feels confident that officers are providing safety to school buildings and also contributing to the education of students.

According to many schools, though, new officers aren't their only reinforcements to boost school safety. School officials in cities like Madawaska and Bangor say they want to redesign school entrances to make them safer.

Some districts are also looking beyond traditional "lockdown" safety drills, to new trainings involving barricading doors and using windows. In RSU 39 in Caribou, Superintendent Tim Doak says the district is even looking at purchasing buckets for classrooms containing tarps and tourniquets in case of emergencies.

"The best thing we can ask ourselves as school administrators is, 'What if? What's our response?'" Doak says.

Doak hopes that after many tragedies nationwide, the new approach can help students and parents slowly regain a sense of security within the classroom.

Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

Originally published September 9, 2018, 5:23 p.m.