Under pressure: Portland school resource officers provide more than security

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Last of three stories.

School resource officers are first and foremost law enforcement officials.

But they’re also so much more.

They’re mentors, role models, cheerleaders, confidants, mediators, and an integral part of the team charged with maintaining the overall mental, emotional and social well being of students.

“It’s more rewarding than being a (beat cop),” Officer Steven Black, the long-time school resource officer at Deering High School, said. “Being in a school, this is where I can make a real difference.”

Black sees his job as “all about building relationships with the kids. I get hugged everyday and I’m Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter friends with (many) of the students.”

At a time when the recent mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has sparked a movement calling for an end to gun violence in schools, Black said one of his most important jobs is simply to “calm this place,” on a daily basis.

He spends most mornings in the cafeteria interacting with students, trying to make them laugh and catching up on what’s going in their lives.

Black also works to ensure that students know Deering is a place “where different groups of kids can find a way to fit in and find someone in the building they can connect with.”

While school resource officers are seen as an essential part of the team of social workers, school administrators, teachers and others who help students navigate their daily lives, the job is also about protecting students and staff and keeping the school safe.

Black was the police officer who confronted an armed man outside Portland High School in May 2009. Black stopped Herbert Jones as he loaded a high-powered rifle in the courtyard between the Cumberland Avenue high school and the First Parish Church on Congress Street. Jones was not targeting the school, but an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at the church, according to news reports at the time.

Black did not shoot Jones, but did draw his weapon. This week Black said he would “absolutely” accost a gunman, or anyone, who presented an active threat to the school, although he admitted it wouldn’t be “quite so black and white” if the shooter was a student he knew.

Overall, he said matter-of-factly, “My job is to minimize the casualties.”

Lock-down drills

That’s also the purpose of the lock-down drills the Portland Public Schools, like many school districts, hold regularly these days.

The basic goal of these drills, which often last no more than 10 minutes or so, is to ensure the halls are empty and that all classroom doors are locked with the lights off, according to Sgt. Andrew Hutchings with the Portland Police Department.

Hutchings is a member of the department’s Community Policing program and helps oversee the school resource officers. He said it’s not just the school resource officers who train for active threats in the schools, but the department as a whole.

“We work with the FBI to train,” he said.

And, Hutchings said, he also reads every after-action report following each school shooting event to ensure the Police and School departments have the best possible response plan in place.

“We’ve gotten to a point in society where the more we practice (for) their safety, the less trauma and stress (students tend to experience),” added Lt. Glen McGary, another officer in the Community Policing program.

“I’m always amazed at how well (the drills) work and how seriously the students take them,” he said. “The more exposure we can give them of being there when (it’s just practice) the better.”

While the school resource officer is supposed to be the first point of contact in an active-threat situation, McGary said anyone, anywhere in the school could contact the police directly and also call for a lock down.

But, McGary said, when it comes to safety in the schools, “it’s really the students and the staff that are on the front lines. (They’re the ones) we rely on to see something, say something.”

“We have to rely on them to identify the risk and not open the doors,” he added.

Hutchings also encouraged anyone in the school to feel free to call the police if “there’s any doubt or anything feels off. Even if it’s just an umbrella, that’s fine. We’d rather come here 100 times for nothing, than not (be called) the one time it matters.”

Neither McGary or Hutchings were willing to go into detail regarding the protocol they follow when there’s an active threat to the schools, but McGary said, “We all have to be part of a bigger network of safety and watching out for each other.”

Hutchings called being a school resource officer “such a complex job. They’re there to provide safety and enforce the law, but they’re also there as a resource and to serve as a liaison and there’s also a mentorship component.”

“Our (school resource) officers really just immerse themselves in the school culture and they just know the kids so well,” he said.

Funding in question

Although Sheila Jepson, the principal at Portland High School, called school resource officers “very essential,” there’s a possibility that funding for those positions may be cut from school budget for fiscal year 2019.

The $118,000 the School Department spends on school resource officers is one of a series of items now on the chopping block as the School Board’s Finance Committee tries to find ways to trim a proposed spending increase.

McGary said the School Department picks up 70 percent of salaries and benefits for school resource officers, while the Police Department picks up the other 30 percent.

A first reading and public hearing on the school budget was scheduled for Tuesday, April 3.

When it comes to lock-down drills or school safety planning, Jepson said, for the most part, students only want to know “that they’ll be safe and that there is a plan.”

She said students generally practice one lock-down drill a year. “It happens so fast,” Jepson said recently. “Within 30 seconds the halls are clear and classroom doors are locked.”

She said when it comes to practicing lock downs, “we try to use common sense because we know we have to do it.”

Following a mass shooting at a school, like what happened on Feb. 14 in Florida or at a Maryland high school on March 20, “it can be really hard, but we try to maintain as much normalcy as possible,” Jepson said.

Black agreed, but also said it’s important to respond to student’s questions and fears about their safety with candor.

“Truth-telling is very important,” he said.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

The series

Part 1: The challenges facing efforts to integrate mental-health support in area schools.

This week: Students regularly practice lock-down and active-shooter procedures; we examine the protocols and the role of school resource officers.

Mental health resources

• Cumberland County Crisis Response: Toll-free crisis intervention and suicide hotline, available to any resident of Cumberland County 24 hours a day at 888-568-1112. More information at https://goo.gl/8jjaas.

• NAMI Maine Helpline: Confidential helpline for peers, family members, friends, professionals and law enforcement, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Toll-free at 800-464-5767, press “1.” Email: helpline@namimaine.org. More info at https://goo.gl/FWCAoG.

• Maine 211: Connect with specialists 24/7; a free and confidential service. Dial 211, text your zip code to 898-211, email Info@211Maine.org, or go online at https://211maine.org/.

• Maine Behavioral Health:  24/7 information about treatment options. A “Rapid Access” program also allows callers to receive a mental health assessment quickly to begin receiving services. Call 844-292-0111.

 Federal Bureau of Investigation: To report a tip to the FBI Boston Office, which covers threats in the state of Maine, available 24/7, call 857-386-2000 or go online at: https://tips.fbi.gov/.

Officer Steve Black, left, at lunch with student Sarah Ali, has been the school resource officer at Deering High School in Portland for the past seven years. He said he tries to spend a lot of his time in the cafeteria, where it’s easy to engage with students.