CARIBOU, Maine – In the wake of the recent shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, an Aroostook County school district is firing its police officer in favor of hiring more people to help students with their school problems. Mental Health.
Facing a increasingly tight budgeta shortage of local law enforcement and a significant increase in student mental health issues, the Caribou School District has elected to hire more mental health support and administrative staff for the coming year , eliminating its school resource officer effective 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) faces choices about how best to address concerns about school safety and what roles police officers should play in keeping it safe. While some districts view the hiring of school resource officers as crucial to ending school violence, others invest their limited resources in social workers, counselors and other forms of non-policing intervention. RSU 39, which serves 700 K-8 students and 480 high school students at its two Caribou schools, chooses mental health.
“Bullying and harassment on social media has become commonplace, especially at the college level,” Doak said.
Although bullying on social media was an issue before COVID-19, the pandemic forced students into self-isolation when classes shifted to remote learning. Many students spent more time alone while their parents worked, increasing their use of social media, Doak said.
Students have been attending more in-person classes this school year than at any other time during the pandemic. But the heightened sense of isolation and uncertainty that has resulted from the pandemic has encouraged many students to communicate more on their phones and on social media, exposing them to more bullies, he said.
“When I was growing up, my mom would answer the phone and check all the calls,” Doak said. “Now a student could be getting ready for bed and receive a text message without their parents knowing.”
The school district has contracted with the 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 time the officer spent on school property.
The district projected that its total costs to keep the resource officer next school year would be $80,000. The lack of a full police department at Caribou means the officer has spent time at both schools for just 25% of the current school year – which was a factor in the decision to eliminate the post, Doak said.
Although the district wants its school resource officer back, it has decided to use its budgeted money to address student mental health needs, Doak said.
RSU 39 has relied on two full-time social workers since the new Caribou Community School opened in 2020. Now the district will hire a third social worker, who previously worked as an education technician at the community school, but who has experience in case management.
The idea is to address behavioral issues that have increased since students returned to in-person classes, such as anger issues and students giving up more easily and feeling overwhelmed, Doak said.
“There was this fear that we all had during COVID that is still there even though we are in person,” he said.
Caribou High School has three counselors and a social worker and does not plan to add more in the near future. For the first time in ten years, the school will have a full-time vice-principal this fall.
The district views the vice principal as someone who can more easily intervene in non-crime student issues, Doak said. Maine law gives administrators the power to conduct house visits, search backpacks and intervene in non-violent confrontations between students, while school resource officers generally deal with crime-related issues .
Having another member of the administrative team will also add a trusted adult that students can turn to if they witness or experience bullying or want to address mental health issues, said Rani Mehta, counselor at Caribou High School.
“We tell kids ‘if you see something, say something.’ Sometimes we learn things [about other students] it could save lives, so having another person who can keep these kids on your radar is huge,” Mehta said.
Student and staff concerns about mental health come at a time when even constant in-person learning hasn’t prevented a bullying-related tragedy.
On March 3, a 14-year-old student from Caribou Community School died. His obituary describes him as someone who stood up for the vulnerable and bullied, and his family asked members of the community to donate to #stopbulllying.
This student’s story is one of the many things that motivates the school to speak directly with students about issues such as bullying, mental health and school safety. For the past year, staff at Caribou High School have hosted guest speakers from Aroostook’s Homeland Security and Juvenile Corrections Divisions, who have spoken about the dangers of cyberbullying.
Last fall, the former principal of Columbine High School, a survivor of the notorious 1999 shootings, spoke to students about fostering positive peer-adult relationships.
Regardless of whether RSU 39 is reinstating a resource officer into the schools, Mehta said strong partnerships with the Caribou Police Department and other community agencies will be crucial in preventing tragedies and encouraging positive relationships between students and adults. .
In a joint statement published 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 the officers would help the district review its security plans, conduct daily security checks on school property, and participate in active shooter training.
Above 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 reads to children [at Caribou Community School]said Gahagan. “Any time students can have a positive interaction with an officer, that’s a good thing. [It shows that] things are not always like what you see on TV.