Cost stands between Cape Elizabeth and school resource officer

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CAPE ELIZABETH — Because of strains on the proposed school budget, the School Department may ask the town to pay for a school resource officer. 

During a School Board workshop last week, board members heard testimony in favor of the position and the benefits it may provide.

The Police Department now sends an officer to district schools each week to check in, but there isn’t an officer present at all hours of the school day. 

Interim Superintendent of Schools Howard Colter said it is not the concept of an SRO that deters the School Department, but the funding. 

Primarily due to a projected $875,000 drop in state funding in fiscal year 2019, the School Department is reviewing a $25.7 million budget that would hike the school portion of the tax rate by $1.45 per $1,000 of value, or 11.4 percent.

Some towns, including Falmouth and York, fund their SROs through the municipal budget, rather than the schools. 

Falmouth Finance Director Peter McHugh said in an interview Wednesday that his town’s proposed budget allocates $95,000, including salary and benefits, for an existing SRO, who next year will focus only on the high school. The budget also includes another $44,000 to fund a new SRO who, beginning in January, will be on duty at Falmouth’s middle and elementary schools. 

From September-January, one of the town’s existing officers will provide SRO coverage at the middle and elementary schools. 

Cape Elizabeth Town Manager Matt Sturgis said the Town Council will likely discuss adding a line to the proposed $12.3 million municipal budget during a joint workshop with the School Board on April 12. 

Sturgis said should they decide to fund the position, the council would likely be looking at around $90,000, but could also consider applying for a federal grant. 

“In some districts, the school and town share the expense, but (our) school doesn’t have the available funding to go down that road,” he added.

Officer Rob Susi has been the SRO in Falmouth schools for more than 15 years. He said national statistics show that, on average, SROs stay in the position for three years. 

“The key to a successful program is finding the right fit,” Susi told the School Board on March 27. “… It has to be someone who understands that their role is bigger than being a police officer in the school.”

Rather than discipline, Susi added, the position is largely about forming good relationships with students. 

“I spend about 20 to 30 percent of my time doing discipline investigation,” he said. “… About 50 to 60 percent of my time is counseling and hanging out with kids and being a role model.”

When problems do arise, Susi said he’s often the first to know because students and parents are comfortable enough to tell him.

“We’ve had a huge drop-off in our disciplinary issues in our high school and a huge drop-off with our juvenile crimes in town, and a lot of that is attributed to the SRO program,” he added.

During the summer, Susi said, he becomes a “spare” officer and goes wherever the Police Department needs him, whether it be as a detective, on the harbor, or on patrol. 

Also present last Tuesday to show his support for SRO positions was York High School Principal Karl Francis, who lives with his family in Cape Elizabeth.

York High School and Cape Elizabeth High School are comparable, with respective enrollments of 550 and 514 students, he said.

Having an SRO in the district, Francis added, is a “no-brainer.”

York has two resource officers – one in its middle school and one at the high school – and both are funded by the town. At the high school, Francis said he considers Officer Nick Piskopanis an “extension of administration” and “integral” to department planning. 

“(SROs) are a valuable resource to me, personally, to our school, to our students, and our community,” Francis said. “I’d like to advocate for that in this community. … I wouldn’t hesitate a bit. In fact, I would invest in … relationship-building and the safety of our kids.”

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

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