MOUNT DESERT — Two former members of the Mount Desert Island High School board Monday night urged the board to reverse Superintendent Marc Gousse’s decision to have a police officer assigned to the school on a regular basis as a school resource officer (SRO).
“I was horrified to find out the board hadn’t voted on it,” said Melisa Rowland, who resigned from the board last year.
The role of an SRO, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers, is to be an “informal counselor/mentor” to students, as well as providing a “safe learning environment” and “fostering positive relationships” between young people and the police.
Officer Tim Bland of the Bar Harbor Police Department has been the SRO at Conners Emerson School since 2010. He has said he sees his job as providing an extra degree of security, helping students stay out of trouble through counseling and showing them that authority figures also can be their friends and confidants.
The memorandum of understanding that Gousse signed in September with Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Police Chief Jim Willis calls for Bland to spend two to two-and-a-half days a week at Conners Emerson, two to two-and-a-half days at the high school and a half-day a week at Mount Desert Elementary.
The decision to have an SRO at the high school is contrary to the position taken by former Superintendent Howard Colter two years ago. Colter and high school Principal Matt Haney had talked with Willis about the possibility of having Bland spend part of his day at the high school but ultimately decided against it.
Rowland, who was chairman of the Bar Harbor School Committee and a member of the high school board at the time, said she had “grave concerns” about having a police officer at the high school on a regular basis.
“Putting an officer in an elementary school is one thing,” she said. “But putting them in the high school … just doesn’t jibe at all well with adolescent male development.”
Rowland is a psychiatrist on the faculty of the Medical University of South Carolina. She specializes in treating and conducting research on children and adolescents with serious emotional and behavioral problems.
“While the issue of having a policeman in the school seems really benign … we need to be careful,” she told the high school board Monday. “The kids we are putting at risk are the kids that we’re having a hard time working with already.”
Former board member Gail Marshall of Mount Desert, who is a former prosecutor, said that having a police officer in a school as a resource officer is “significantly problematic.” She gave board members a four-page letter in which she raised a number of questions.
“We are assured, with a good faith I do not question, that the officer would not act as ‘big brother,’” she wrote. “But what does that mean? Can a police officer on duty in fact ever not be a police officer?
“There is compelling evidence that the presence of police officers in schools tends to increase the possibility of a juvenile having contact with the juvenile justice system. While sometimes necessary, it is never a desirable outcome and is a significant risk factor for further and worse interventions.”
Like a number of current board members, Marshall and Rowland said they were not aware of the SRO agreement between Gousse and Willis until they read about it in a news story in the Dec. 29 issue of the Islander.
Gousse told the high school board Monday that in his 34 years in education, he has had a lot of experience with SROs.
“I’ve seen it as overwhelmingly positive for students and schools.”
He said that while he understands that it is the board’s job to set policy, “I also feel this has been an incredibly positive move. But the only way we will know that is if we get feedback from our students and our staff.”
Haney, the high school principal, agreed.
“From my perspective, it has been a positive experience, but we do want to get beyond just the perception. So, I’ve asked the faculty to think about their reaction, to really observe, to listen to students. I’m going to solicit feedback from the entire faculty.”
Haney said he also plans to set up focus groups involving a broad range of students to find out what they think about having the SRO at school.
Board Chairman Ingrid Kachmar of Southwest Harbor said the issue would be on the agenda for discussion at the Feb. 13 board meeting. Gousse said he would invite Willis to attend to give his perspective and answer questions.
Apology at MDES
Last Wednesday, Gousse apologized to the Mount Desert School Committee, whose members also serve on the high school board, for not consulting them before agreeing to have Bland assigned to Mount Desert Elementary as an SRO a half-day a week.
“I definitely should have come to you folks and told you I was exploring this and would like to move forward with it,” he told the committee. “I did not do that, and that’s not a position I want to put you folks in.
“When I took the action that I did, I didn’t see it as something that was going to create significant controversy. My intentions were honorable.”
School committee Chairman Caroline Pryor said she had met with Gousse last Tuesday, the day before the committee meeting, and expressed her concern about both the decision and the way in which it was made.
“This is a really important civic issue and community issue, and I don’t see it as an executive, administrative matter,” she said. “It’s just not how we do things in this community.”
Gousse has been superintendent here since July 1. In his previous position as school superintendent in Westbrook, he was accustomed to taking actions such as signing the SRO agreement without board approval.
All five members of the Mount Desert School Committee said they wanted to learn more about the pros and cons of having an SRO at Mount Desert Elementary and to get input from parents, teachers and others. Gousse agreed that the issue deserves further consideration.
“It certainly warrants taking a step back, having conversations with students, staff and community,” he said. “I don’t want to be a party to anything that isn’t well received in our schools.”
Mount Desert Principal Gloria Delsandro, who prior to this year was assistant principal at Conners Emerson for two years, told the school committee that she had worked closely with Bland in “a lot of very sensitive situations.”
“In times of crisis, in emergencies, we teach our children to look to the police for support and safety and protection,” Delsandro said. “And I have seen students develop relationships [with Bland] that have been very positive and lasting and appreciated.”
She said Monday that Bland has been at Mount Desert Elementary in his role as SRO for part of only one day since Gousse and Willis signed the SRO agreement.
Pryor noted that some parents, teachers and others are uncomfortable with the idea of having a police officer in a school on a regular basis no matter how friendly and supportive he or she might be.
“There are some pros and some cons,” she said. “There are some real risks for students in having an armed officer on campus. It’s a really big policy issue, I think.”
Mount Desert School Committee member Heather Jones asked Gousse whether having Bland at the elementary school just a half-day a week would be enough to make a difference.
“The short answer is, probably not,” he said. “When you have somebody who is able to spend more time, you have more of a positive effect.”
Given that, Gousse said, “If it is something that is really positive and beneficial, why wouldn’t we do it in all the schools? That probably bears more discussion.”