Testimony to the Portland Board of Education
By Zachary Heiden, Legal Director, ACLU of Maine

Good evening, and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you tonight. My name is Zachary Heiden and I am the legal director at the ACLU of Maine, as well as the parent of two Portland Public School students.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, young people in the United States were experiencing unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety, and trauma. Add to that the effect of living through a global pandemic and economic downturn, and it is safe to assume that students returning to school at some point in the future will be in need of added support to navigate this uncertain time.

Yet we are not equipped to give them that. In Maine and nationwide, our youth suffer from a severe lack of adequate community-based mental health services. In lieu of community-based programs, school-based mental health providers — such as school counselors, nurses, and social workers –are frequently the first to see children who are sick, stressed, traumatized, or hurting themselves or others.

Given the clear need for mental health resources, it would make sense for school boards, school principals, and government leaders to be using every available resource to increase school-based health professionals. Yet that has not been the trend. Instead, funding for police in schools has been on the rise, while public schools face a critical shortage of counselors, nurses, psychologists, and social workers. 

The benefits of investing in mental health services are clear: Schools with such services see improved attendance rates, better academic achievement, and higher graduation rates as well as lower rates of suspension, expulsion, and other disciplinary incidents. Data shows that the presence of school-based mental health providers not only improves outcomes for students, but can also improve overall school safety.

By contrast, there is no evidence that increased police presence in schools improves student safety, student educational outcomes, or student mental health. For example, a recent evaluation of the impact of North Carolina’s state grant program for school-based police officers concluded that middle schools that hired SOs did not report reductions in serious incidents like assaults, homicide, bomb threats, possession and use of alcohol and drugs, or the possession of weapons.

The presence of police shifts the focus from learning and supporting students to over-disciplining and criminalizing them. Students are removed from classes, subjected to physical restraint, interrogation, and other risks to their rights to education, due process, and equal treatment. These consequences disproportionately fall on the most vulnerable students.

Students of color– including in Maine – are more likely to be referred to law enforcement, and more likely to be arrested at school. While Black children make up 3.1 percent of public school students in Maine, they receive over 6 percent of referrals to law enforcement that remove them from school, for similar behaviors to their white peers. This early contact with the criminal legal system increases the likelihood that they will be caught up in the system as adults.

Students with disabilities, too, are disproportionately arrested and physically harmed by school police. Nationwide, students with disabilities were nearly three times more likely to be arrested than students without disabilities, and the risk is multiplied at schools with police. 

It is too soon to predict the physical, psychological and economic toll of this crisis. But it is not too soon to put these lessons to work. We have before us an opportunity to make changes to the status quo and envision the state that we can become. As we consider where we will spend our limited resources, we have an opportunity to divest from things that are harmful and invest in things that will make us – all of us – stronger.

We urge you to reject funding for police officers in Portland schools and put those resources where they are truly needed – into mental health resources for your students who desperately need them.