Portland school officials want more time to consider whether to allow police officers to record students using body-worn cameras inside schools.
In a tense Tuesday night meeting, the Portland Public School Board voted unanimously to ask the police department to hold off on equipping school resource officers with body-worn cameras until the district and department can better understand how the information will be stored and who will have access.
A key issue is the question of ownership of any video recordings made and whether those recordings would be shared with any agency outside of the Portland Police Department, a school spokesperson said Wednesday. The Portland Public Schools would prefer to be the custodian of the recordings.
The city said that school resource officers would continue their assignments in Deering and Portland high schools without cameras until an agreement is reached.
It’s the latest in an ongoing discussion about the role of school resource officers — police officers assigned to cover schools.
School resource officers are advised to activate the body-worn camera “only when responding to cases of suspected criminal activity or when assisting school personnel with matters that may result in disorderly or otherwise disruptive behavior,” according to proposed language in the agreement between schools and police department governing school resource officers.
But the issue has raised questions about government surveillance and the over-policing of schools, factors which change how student behavior is viewed, labeled and dealt with. While resource officers have been a largely popular addition to schools over the past 20 years, a recent study by the University of Southern Maine’s Cutler Institute for Health and Social Policy found a downside.
The presence of school resource officers increases the likelihood that students of color and students with disabilities receive harsh punishments for minor violations, such as swearing or being disruptive, and can cause long-term harm to young people who become involved with the justice system. Schools with resource officers have five times more arrests for disorderly conduct than schools without them, according to the study, which was released in October.
“A wide range of non-compliant behaviors displayed by students may be labeled as ‘disorderly conduct’ or ‘disrupting a school’, which transfers the responsibility for responding to the behavior from the school to law enforcement,” the study found.
The presence of body-worn cameras are intended to increase police accountability and public trust, according to a 2015 report from the National Association of School Resource Officers.
The issue was one of two proposed changes that school board officials discussed Tuesday night. The other would allow school resource officers to assist with threat assessments.
Portland Police Chief Frank Clark stressed at Tuesday night’s meeting that equipping school resource officers with body-worn cameras was imperative and advocated for an immediate implementation of the cameras.
“The cameras provide a valuable means of objective documentation of police interactions, which only enhances police transparency and accountability, while protecting involved students, staff and officers,” Clark said in a prepared statement Wednesday.
The implementation of school resource officers prompts a number of privacy concerns for students. A national study found that 48 percent of school resource officers typically monitor the social media accounts of students in their district.
The Portland Public School district pays $130,000 per year for two school resource officers assigned to Deering and Portland high schools. In Maine, there were 82 school resource officers working in more than 93 schools across 49 districts, as of the fall of 2018 — though the authors of the study believe the real figure is larger since school resource officers do not currently report to the Maine Department of Corrections.
In Portland, school resource officers, or SROs, have support of the administration. Superintendent Xavier Botana said in an October school board workshop they “play an integral role in the school” and “work very closely with our principals, counselors and social workers.”
But some teachers and school board members worry about the trend toward ramping up police presence in the school system, indicating a larger philosophical divide.
“The justification for having more SROs is that they act like social workers,” said Rep. Victoria Morales, D-South Portland, a lawyer who has worked with Greater Portland schools to establish restorative justice practices. “This is an extremely problematic justification because the mission and power of a police officer is drastically different from a social worker. This is a severe analogy, but it is like hiring a butcher to perform massages.”
Morales sponsored a bill to create a model school disciplinary policy centering restorative justice practices that passed the Maine Legislature this year.
“I’ve interviewed a number of SROs in the state — they’re good individuals,” said George Shaler, a senior research associate at the Cutler Institute with the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service. “But when you go to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, you’re not getting a lot of development on issues pertaining to adolescents. They’re really good at being law enforcement, but sometimes you need a nuanced approach to dealing with young people.”