BAR HARBOR — An agreement that allows police officers to serve as school resource officers (SROs) at Conners Emerson School in Bar Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and Mount Desert Elementary School (MDES) has been approved by the MDI Regional School System board.
The board endorsed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the school system and the Bar Harbor and Mount Desert police departments Oct. 16.
The board also adopted two policies establishing guidelines and administrative procedures for “relations with school resource officers and law enforcement authorities,” which will govern how all nine of the MDIRSS schools interact with law enforcement.
Now that the MOU and policies are in place, Bar Harbor Police Officer Tim Bland is set to return to Conners Emerson and the high school as SRO.
Bland has served as SRO at Conners Emerson since 2010. He has said he sees his job there 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 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.
School Superintendent Marc Gousse and Jim Willis, chief of the Bar Harbor and Mount Desert police departments, signed an MOU in September 2016 that called for Bland to spend roughly 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 MDES. Gousse did not inform the school board or seek its approval before signing the MOU, and most board members and parents were not aware of it until late December.
At that point, questions were raised about whether it is appropriate for the schools to have SROs. Several board members, former members and others expressed strong opposition to having police officers in the schools, particularly the high school, in any capacity on a regular basis.
In March, the school system board’s policy committee recommended that Conners Emerson and the high school continue to have an SRO. The committee also agreed with Gousse that an SRO policy and job description were needed.
Over the next few months, policy committee members plus Gousse, Willis and former school board member Gail Marshall crafted the new MOU and SRO policies that the board has adopted. The policies are based on those endorsed by the American Civil Liberties Union. Marshall said she did not favor having SROs in the schools, but if the school board decided to allow them, there should be a strict policy governing their role.
The new MOU states that the mission of the SRO is to “promote school safety and the educational climate at the school, not to enforce school discipline or punish students.”
The school board’s three votes approving the MOU and SRO policies were each 14-1, with Caroline Pryor casting the dissenting vote in each case. She praised the policy committee for making the MOU “much more student-centered, much more protective of students and families.”
She also said she understands that there are times when police officers need to go to the schools to deal with specific situations, but she is philosophically opposed to having them in the schools on a regular basis.
Because several Bar Harbor police officers were at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy in Vassalboro during the first part of this year, Officer Bland was not available to serve as SRO at the high school last spring and only on a limited basis at Conners Emerson. And, as in previous years, he hasn’t been in his SRO role so far this fall because he is needed for other duties during the busy tourist season.
The MOU between the school system and the two police departments states that an SRO may be assigned to MDI High School, Conners Emerson or MDES “at the discretion of the police chief in collaboration with the superintendent and principals.”
Pryor, who chairs the Mount Desert school committee, said at last week’s board meeting that it was her understanding that, for now, only Conners Emerson would have an SRO.
“We don’t have anything pending with the high school or Mount Desert that I know of,” she said.
But MDI High Principal Matt Haney said last Friday that he expects Bland to be at the school as SRO very soon.
“Now that the cruise ship season is nearing an end and we have the MOU and accompanying policies in place for the current school year, we look forward to partnering with the police department to provide school resource officer support for students and staff,” Haney said.
Willis said he will work with Gousse and the principals to determine how much time Bland spends at each school.
“I believe his time will be split primarily between MDI High School and Conners Emerson, the ratio to be determined by the administrators,” Willis said. “Tim [Bland] will be available for all three schools … and will respond to any requests from administrators for incidents that arise. So, if he is at the high school [as SRO] for the day and either Conners Emerson or MDES calls for him, he will be on the way.”
MDES Principal Gloria Delsandro said Monday that she looks forward to meeting with Gousse, Haney, Willis and Conners Emerson Principal Barb Neilly “to review the (SRO) position in our district and at MDES.”
She said Bland has not been at MDES as SRO so far this school year.
Swans Island, one of eight towns in the school system, contracts with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement coverage. Tammy Tripler, who represents Swans Island on the school system board and serves on the policy committee, said of the arrangement with the sheriff’s office, “We have a really great relationship right now … trying to build trust so that [students and parents] see that the police are there to help.”
But she said it hasn’t always been that way.
“In the past, we’ve had some bad experiences with local law enforcement in our school misusing their power,” she said. “So, in looking at these [SRO] guidelines, we wanted to make it very clear what their role would be. The lines can become blurred very easily.”