KITTERY, Maine — The committee evaluating Kittery’s school resource officer position has officially recommended the addition of district support staff, including a director of equity, to better meet student needs.
A 193-page report from the city’s school resource officer task force says the SRO’s position, which was controversial nearly two years ago amid heightened tensions surrounding racial injustice at the hands of law enforcement, should be complemented by more intensely equity-focused personnel and student mental health.
The 11-member task force is also advocating for the Kittery School District to expand the SRO’s ability to interact with students one-on-one and show them a day in the life of an officer to familiarize students with the role.
Dustin Ward, founder of It Is Time LLC, a Maine-based race and reconciliation advocate, presented the findings of the SRO task force to the Kittery School Board on Tuesday evening, outlining the key recommendations made by the task force. .
Asking to form the task force without consultation from the district, Ward formed the 11-member group last year, which includes parents and district staff, a student from RW Traip Academy, two community members and the Kittery Police Chief Robert Richter.
“When you get leaders on board and you get enough votes on board, it makes things a lot easier,” Ward said of the process, which took about eight months.
After the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis nearly two years ago and the national conversation about racial injustice at the hands of law enforcement, Kittery has experienced a flurry of mixed messages about whether to remove his agent from the city school district school resources. While some were adamant that students of color might feel disturbed by a police officer in schools, others hit back, saying the police keep everyone safe.
The conversation slipped into the work of the school committee, which in August 2020 held a vote on whether to retain SRO services for the 2020-21 academic year.
School committee chairwoman Julie Dow abstained from voting because her brother, Jay Durgin, was the town’s SRO at the time. This vote ended in a tie, meaning that the position of SRO was eliminated and the SRO would not be needed at all three schools in the city.
Just two weeks later, after public outcry, the school committee took the vote again, approving SRO services and reinstating Durgin. The vote on reinstating the SRO also came with the idea of creating a three-year plan that would have a community task force assess the future of the SRO position and make a final recommendation on its elimination in the future. .
Former Kittery School Resource Officer Jay Durgin, a third-generation townsman and graduate of RW Traip Academy, had been the district SRO since 2014 before his promotion to sergeant in the Kittery Police Department. the city last summer. Four-year-old Kittery officer Tristan Valenti was named his successor in August.
Additional hires needed for fairness, student comfort
The ORS Working Group surveyed three different age groups of pupils, dividing them into grades 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12, on a range of topics including their level of comfort with an ORS at school and their mental health.
The group’s first recommendation to the school board, based on what they were hearing from students in interviews and recording in their returned surveys, is to make additional hires in the school district.
“When we reviewed all of this information, we recognized that there were staffing shortages, but we recognized that the SRO could not do all that it was tasked to do,” Ward said. “More hands were needed.”
The first group of hires suggested by the group were district mentors who could specifically be there for students without having to serve as a mandatory reporter like an SRO, social worker, school counselor or other staff member.
A survey question asked of students asked about who they would go to first if there was a problem at their school, with most saying they would go to a trusted friend or relative before anyone else. working in the school district.
“These are people you can really trust because you can leave them a secret. It’s different from your administrators, your SROs, the ones who have to report if there’s something serious,” Ward said.
Whether it’s ex-teachers, college students, high school students or other members of the community, Ward said a no-disclosure mentor could be a compromise. “Building that trust but also allowing you to have a space where students can go,” he said.
Responses from Kittery students in grades 6-12 indicated that some experienced harassment and bullying on the basis of race and discrimination. This led the SRO task force to recommend that the district hire a director of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Ward pointed to SAU 16 in Exeter, New Hampshire School District, which became the first school district in the state to hire for the position.
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice: The director of SAU 16 explains what role is and is not.
“What this tells us is that we need a conversation and someone to lead that conversation about diversity, equity and inclusion so that students feel safe in their classrooms” , Ward said of the survey results.
The task force recommends the creation of school safety groups
The SRO Task Force recommends that the Kittery School District establish safety teams at all three schools: Mitchell Primary, Shapeligh and Traip.
The group would include teachers, counsellors, nurses, social workers, coaches, the SRO and the municipal police. Comparing it to a crisis response team, which the district already has, Ward said the security group would be used in situations where students are looking for emotional support, which would ease the pressure felt by the SRO. to provide support while being an officer.
“It’s for times of discriminatory behavior or bullying or cyberbullying and also to step in and have a framework for, how do we keep our students safe when it comes to those same issues?” Ward said. “We really think it’s a low hanging fruit because you’re bringing in key stakeholders who are already in place and on campuses.”
To better familiarize students with the SRO, the task force also recommended the creation of a citizen academy, which would allow the SRO to show students what law enforcement goes through on a daily basis.
The SRO task force also proposed that the district conduct both a student mental health and wellbeing assessment and an “equity audit,” which Ward said would be a long haul. term.
Reassess the look of an SRO, time spent in school
Keeping the SRO position intact, the SRO working group has made a series of suggestions on how the look and relationship aspects of the SRO position can be changed to better support students.
Noting that the Kittery Police Department has softened the city’s SRO uniform, Ward said student responses showed some were triggered by the appearance of a regular officer’s uniform and could lead to a traumatic response. .
Chief Richter explained Wednesday that the former SRO wore a typical department uniform. Beginning this academic year, the SRO is only required to wear combat dress uniform-style pants and a polo shirt with a Kittery Police badge and name tag.
Whenever the ORS has entered one of Kittery’s three schools, the task force recommended that it could be beneficial for each school to make an announcement that the officer is on campus. To deepen interactions with students, they also suggested that the SRO could meet with students for certain programs, such as a “lunch with friends” program that could allow students to interact with the SRO one-on-one.
The district should also reevaluate the time the SRO spends in school buildings and on school property to actually participate in policing duties. “I think there just needs to be some sort of rethinking and reassessment of, why are they there and what are they doing?” said Ward.
A community feedback session on the district vision will be held next Monday, January 24th.
Read the full SRO Task Force report: drive.google.com/file/d/1AgKjlN0Ora92mmP6Ig8BB9etmoWXlc9R/view
This article originally appeared on the Portsmouth Herald: Kittery SRO task force: schools should add an equity director and support staff