School resource officer Tim Bland. Though Bland has served as SRO at Conners Emerson since 2010, an agreement to have him serve as SRO at Mount Desert Island High School and Mount Desert Elementary School is controversial. ISLANDER FILE PHOTO

School cop debated

BAR HARBOR — The question of whether to have a police officer – in the role of “school resource officer” – assigned on a regular basis to Mount Desert Island High School has been referred to the regional school board’s policy committee.

After nearly two hours of discussion by the high school board and members of the public Feb. 15, the board agreed to ask the policy committee to study the matter and make recommendations.

Since 2010, Bar Harbor Police Officer Tim Bland has spent part of his time as school resource officer (SRO) at Conners Emerson School. Last September, Superintendent Marc Gousse and Jim Willis, chief of the Bar Harbor and Mount Desert police departments, signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that called for Bland to spend 2 to 2-1/2 days a week at Conners Emerson, 2 to 2-1/2 days at the high school and a half-day at Mount Desert Elementary.

Many people, including most school board members, were unaware of the agreement until the Islander reported on it in late December. Since then, some board members and others have expressed opposition to having an SRO at the high school.

According to the National Association of School Resource Officers, an SRO is to be an “informal counselor/mentor” to students who helps provide a “safe learning environment” and fosters “positive relationships” between young people and the police. Bland has said that’s how he sees his role.

Principal Matt Haney told the high school board last week that he solicited feedback from students and staff about the SRO after the board discussed the issue in January.

“My gut told me it was working well; my eyes told me it was working well,” he said. “But I wanted to confirm that, so I did a digital survey with the staff.”

He said nearly 90 percent of teachers and other staff members responded and that 85 percent of them favored having Bland in the school as an SRO. He said some of those in opposition expressed concern about “the sheer existence of a weapon in the school.” Others cited studies showing that adolescents, especially males, in schools with SROs are more likely, at some point, to run afoul of the law and enter what some refer to as the “school to jail pipeline.”

Haney said he also held eight focus groups with 10 students each to discuss the SRO question.

“We were very careful to choose groups that represented all of our different populations by age, by gender, by academic success and to include students who may have had trouble disciplinary-wise,” he said. “Out of all the students we met with, two of them said no [to having an SRO].”

Haney said a number of students asked a question that he had been wrestling with: What problem is the school trying to solve with an SRO?

He said he realized there is no problem, “and that’s okay.”

“Sometimes, creating a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist is a bad idea, but in this case, it’s not. We’re not trying to solve a problem. We’re accepting a resource that is a strong, positive benefit for our students.”

At Gousse’s invitation, Chief Willis described Bland’s SRO role. He said that, for him, it’s all about “building confidence and trust in the community for law enforcement.”

“If Tim is up here every day building relationships with students and staff, then they will trust him,” Willis said. “Us knowing each other and working together and solving problems without the court system is what we should be doing. The court should be used last.”

Willis acknowledged that not all SROs are cut out for the role.

“If the wrong guy is here, [Gousse] is going to call me and we’re going to end it because I don’t want to give us a black eye and create mistrust,” he said. “But we have a special person right now in Tim Bland, and we’re trying to take advantage of it.”

Megan Moore, a high school junior, told the school board, “Officer Tim has been one of the most positive influential role models in my entire life.” She said it would be “a really big shame” if the SRO program was discontinued.

Wendy Littlefield, the high school’s bookkeeper, said Bland quietly exerts a calming influence when students are angry or upset.

“He doesn’t yell at them; he doesn’t pull out [a weapon]. He just says, ‘Hey, let’s go for a walk.’

“I’ve heard students ask his advice,” Littlefield said. “I’ve heard them share their stories with him. He’s a unique, amazing person and resource in our school.”

Opponents leery

Former school board members Gail Marshall and Melisa Rowland spoke against having an SRO, as they did at the previous month’s board meeting.

Marshall, a former prosecutor, said she doesn’t doubt that Bland is everything his admirers claim. But she said an SRO policy should not be based on the attributes of a given person.

“I never like to see policy predicated upon individual “A” versus individual “B,” Marshall said. “Yes, you need to have a good person in that slot, but are you creating the slot for good and necessary reasons to begin with?”

One of her many concerns, she said, is that according to the MOU between Gousse and Willis, Bland “prepares police reports about his activities in the school.”

Haney said that doesn’t happen.

“He is not keeping any logs on anything that happens. I asked him that directly. He is not involved in discipline.”

Rowland, a psychiatrist who specializes in treating young people with serious emotional and behavioral problems, said research shows SROs have an adverse effect.

“I’m absolutely convinced that we at the very least risk harm to at least a subpopulation of our youth,” she said. “Even if it’s Tim Bland, we may well, inadvertently, do harm.

“I believe that by bringing a policeman into the school … we put kids and families at risk of basically having their civil rights violated.”

Rowland said she worries that, when some infraction occurs at school, “a child could be talking to police without parents or a lawyer present” and without realizing that “what they say can ultimately be held against them in a court of law.”

Haney said, “We would never, ever have a student questioned by a police officer without the parent there, even if the student is 18.”

Rowland said the SRO concept blurs what should be a clear line between the roles of police officers and those of school personnel.

“I think our kids won’t be served as adults by thinking that it’s safe to interact with police in ways that you would interact with guidance and support staff at school,” she said.

School board member Caroline Pryor said she had several concerns about the SRO.

“One of my concerns is trust. I worry that when we put more trust in Tim, we erode the trust that students should have in Matt and (other school officials).

“I also feel this issue is straining relationships between students, among teachers and staff, among parents, between the community and potentially, depending on what course we take, it may even strain relationships within this board,” Pryor said.

Next steps

Gousse said he would be happy for board members to review his MOU with Willis, as well as “exemplary policies” regarding SROs. In the meantime, he asked that the high school be allowed to keep the SRO.

“Then in the spring, we can come back and report additional information … as to whether we have learned anything new,” Gousse said.

The board agreed with member Heidi Lawson’s suggestion to ask the policy committee to review the MOU, as well as SRO policies in other school districts and any other material that might be helpful.

Willis said that, ironically, Bland probably will be able to serve as an SRO only on a limited basis for the next few months. He said that is because one Bar Harbor police officer is an instructor at the Maine Police Academy this spring and another is attending the academy.

“That leaves us short on patrol,” he said. “So I’ve told the school administration that they’re going to get Tim one or two days a week at best, using him where they see fit, until the end of May.”

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]

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