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Researcher: Maine Schools Need More Support Professionals Before Increasing Resource Officers

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public

School shootings have put more attention on safety and security at schools in recent years.

A 2015 snapshot showed about 40 percent of public schools in the U.S. had an armed police officer called a School Resource Officer, or SRO. In Maine last year, the Department of Corrections counted fewer than 100 School Resource Officers.

A new report by the Juvenile Justice Advisory Group, which is part of the DOC, is trying to better understand how SROs are being used.

All Things Considered host Nora Flaherty spoke with lead researcher Danielle Layton about the changing school landscape these police officers are deployed in and how that compares with hiring challenges schools face.

Flaherty: The number of SROs in Maine has been increasing fairly rapidly, even as many schools are having a hard time filling other positions like support professionals, school counselors and social workers. Is that a concern?

Layton: Well, I think that the concern is continuing to hire more officers when we also need to be looking at who the student support professionals are that you have that your students are having access to in their school system. They may be there, but do they have a completely full caseload? Are they available? Who else can students go to to get help? Those student support professionals are so important in promoting positive school climate, and where students have support that they can get in a safe way and from somebody that has been trained to recognize and respond to what students are going through, whatever that may be.

That’s the really concerning thing for me is that we’re not attending enough to hiring, getting our schools in the right ratios that you would want for student support professionals before expanding our SRO program. I think that school safety is not just the physical environment, and it’s not just protecting against outside intruders. I know that the fear is real for that, but I think starting with school climate is a really effective way of attending to school safety concerns. And so I don’t see us doing that with the same rapid hiring of school social workers as with SROs.

The Cutler Institute did this research at the behest of a state commission. That would seem to imply that there would be policy recommendations. What would you, as the lead researcher on this and what does the report advise, needs to happen with Maine’s system to make it work better?

The main policy recommendation that we would offer is having more consistent policy guidance for the SRO programs statewide. So we see so much difference between jurisdictions as to how this program can be deployed. There’s just not a lot of consistency.

We do have other models that we could look to, like Massachusetts, one of our closest neighbors, is implementing a statewide memorandum of understanding for all SRO programs. So if your school is using an SRO, then they all need to use the same memorandum of understanding that governs how the officer is selected, how they are trained, how they can be deployed, how the school needs to be trained, how the school can involve them, or where the boundaries are and where they should not be involved, when students need to be read their Miranda rights, when parents need to be contacted — all of those things should be covered. That would be probably the most important policy recommendation that we could make, because that would include a lot of the other things that we found as far as what roles are SROs playing and are those the roles that we want them to be playing? What training do they have and should they have more? What data are collected and is that enough for oversight and evaluation? All of those things can fall into a statewide model MOA or MOU.

This interview has been edited for clarity.