RSU 39 Superintendent Tim Doak (right) is pictured in this April 2022 file photo. The Caribou school district is opting to use funding to enrich student mental health services, rather than retain its resource officer. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — In the wake of the recent shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, one school district in Aroostook County is eliminating its police officer in favor of hiring more people to help students with their mental health issues.

When faced with an increasingly tight budget, a shortage in local law enforcement and a significant increase in mental health issues among students, the Caribou school district chose to hire more mental health support and administrative staff for the coming year, thus eliminating its school resource officer as of July 1.

The district wants to address issues that have affected more students since COVID-19, such as social media bullying and harassment, anxiety and depression, before they become too destructive and lead to violence or self-harm, RSU 39 Superintendent Timothy Doak said Friday.

Like school districts across the United States, RSU 39 (Caribou and Stockholm) is facing choices on how to best respond to concerns about school security and the roles that police officers should play in maintaining it. While some districts see the hiring of school resource officers as crucial for stopping school-based violence, others invest  their limited resources in social workers, counselors and alternative forms of non-police intervention. RSU 39, which serves 700 prekindergarten through eighth-grade students and 480 high school students at its two Caribou schools, is choosing mental health.

“Social media bullying and harassment have become rampant, especially at the middle school level,” Doak said.

Though social media bullying was an issue prior to COVID-19, the pandemic forced students into isolation when classes switched to remote learning. Many students spent more time alone while their parents worked, increasing their social media use, Doak said.

Students have been to in-person classes more during this school year than any other time during the pandemic. But the increased sense of isolation and uncertainty that grew out of the pandemic encouraged many students to communicate on their phones and social media more, further exposing them to bullies, he said.

“When I was growing up, my mother answered the phone and vetted all the calls,” Doak said. “Now, a student could be getting ready for bed and receive a text without their parents knowing.”

The school district has contracted with Caribou Police Department for four years for a resource officer at both Caribou Community School and Caribou High School. The district paid the city based on the amount of time the officer spent on school grounds.

The district projected its total costs to keep the resource officer next school year would be $80,000. The lack of a fully staffed police department in Caribou meant that the officer spent time at both schools during only 25 percent of the current school year — which was a factor in the decision to eliminate the position, Doak said.

Although the district wants to have its school resource officer return, it has decided to use its budgeted money to address mental health needs among students, Doak said.

RSU 39 has relied on two full-time social workers since opening the newly built Caribou Community School in 2020. Now the district will hire a third social worker, who previously worked as an ed tech at the community school but has experience in case management.

The idea is to address behavioral problems that have increased since students returned to in-person classes, such as anger issues and students giving up on themselves more easily and becoming overwhelmed, Doak said.

“There was this fear we all had during COVID that’s still here even though we’re in person,” he said.

Caribou High School has three counselors and one social worker and does not plan to add more in the near future. For the first time in a decade, the school will have a full-time assistant principal this fall.

The district sees the assistant principal as someone who can more easily intervene in non-crime-related student issues, Doak said. Maine law gives administrators authority to conduct home visits, search backpacks and intervene in non-violent confrontations between students, while school resource officers typically deal with crime-related matters.

Having another administrative team member will also add a trusted adult that students can turn to if they witness or experience bullying or want to address mental health concerns, Caribou High School counselor Rani Mehta said.

“We tell kids ‘if you see something, say something.’ Sometimes we learn things [about other students] that could be lifesaving, so having another person who can keep those kids on their radar is huge,” Mehta said.

Students’ and staff members’ concerns over mental health come at a time where even consistent in-person learning has not prevented a bullying-related tragedy.

On March 3, a 14-year-old student from Caribou Community School died. His obituary described him as someone who stood up for the vulnerable and bullied, and his family asked community members to donate to #stopbulllying.

That student’s story is one of many things motivating the school to address issues such as bullying, mental health and school safety with students directly. In the past year, Caribou High School staff hosted guest speakers from Aroostook’s Homeland Security and juvenile corrections divisions, who talked about  the dangers of cyberbullying.

Last fall, the former principal of Columbine High School, a survivor of the well known 1999 school shooting, spoke to students on promoting positive peer and adult connections.

Regardless of whether RSU 39 reinstates a resource officer in the schools, Mehta said that strong partnerships with Caribou Police Department and other community agencies will be crucial in preventing tragedies and encouraging positive student-and-adult relationships.

In a joint statement released this week, Doak and Police Chief Michael Gahagan discussed a possible return of the school’s “Lunch with a Caribou Police Officer” program. They also said that officers will help the district review its safety plans, make daily security checks on school properties and assist with active shooter training.

Most of all, Gahagan wants students to have positive relationships with local law enforcement and see them as a normal part of their community.

“Even today I have an officer who’s reading to kids [at Caribou Community School],” Gahagan said. “Any time students can have a positive interaction with an officer is a good thing. [It shows that] things aren’t always like what you see on TV.”