Several years ago, Officer Greg Stearns’ chief goal as the new school resource officer was to break down the figurative wall that often exists between “the uniform and the youth.”

These days, students at Belfast Area High School and Troy Howard Middle School — where Stearns spends much of his time — almost always call the officer by his first name.

Stearns said that level of familiarity is just one way the students have demonstrated an increased comfort level with having a school resource officer walking the halls in their school.

“They all know I’m just Greg,” he said. “I’m no different than their parents, I just wear different clothes when I go to work.”

While walking through the lobby during lunch time, students actively engaged the officer in conversation. Some even offered a bit of good-natured ribbing.

BAHS junior Robert Currier, who has known Stearns in his role as a resource officer and as a parent, said he has been glad to see the officer at work in his school each day.

“Yeah, we like him,” said Currier, while shooting Stearns a mischievous look, adding, “No more donut jokes.”

The officer played along.

“I kind of like the donut jokes,” Stearns countered, with a grin.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the county, RSU 3 is returning to the ranks of school systems that have a resource officer in place. This fall, Officer Gerry Lincoln became the first to fill that role in the 11-town school district since Maine State Police Trooper Tom Ballard patrolled the halls there for a couple of years a decade ago.

As was the case in Belfast area schools a few years ago, the newly established resource officer program in RSU 3 is just establishing roots and Lincoln continues working to build relationships with the students and their families.

Most youths refer to Lincoln as “Officer Lincoln” rather than by his first name. Lincoln, a former Air Force pilot and flight instructor turned law enforcement officer, said it’s not due to his own expectations but has more to do with how he has been introduced to the student body.

Even with the more formal title, students in the Mount View complex appear to be quite comfortable with approaching Lincoln to talk about everything from what’s going on in their classes to more unusual problems — such as kidnapped clothing.

Lincoln dealt with the latter issue during a recent afternoon at Mount View High School. One young man reported that his pants, shoes and a portion of his jacket were missing. The culprit(s) had left a ransom note that included instructions that the student wear the sleeves of his jacket as pant legs during a break the following day.

The youth, who had a smile on his face the entire time he spoke with Lincoln, located the majority of his missing clothing a short time later, although his shoes remained missing in action.

“You just never know,” Lincoln said, shaking his head and smiling.

A day in the life of an SRO

Stearns said there is no such thing as a typical day in his line of work.

“I will say my day typically begins before the bell rings [around 7:30 a.m.],” said Stearns.

During a recent week, Stearns began two days dealing with physical altercations that took place between students at the middle and high schools, respectively. Other days may start with a parent meeting regarding a troubled student. Sometimes Stearns’ work begins the night before a school day officially begins.

“People know I’m available 24-7,” said Stearns. “I get calls at home all the time from parents who have concerns about their kids.”

Stearns logs his activities into a program called School COP (Crime Operations Package), and out of the nearly 100 incidents Stearns has dealt with at RSU 20 schools this year, the majority — 15 percent — have involved defiant students. In those cases Stearns said the youths went beyond refusing to follow classroom rules and on to using profanity and/or threatening language toward a teacher or administrator.

Eleven percent of the incidents were thefts, and 9 percent of the issues Stearns has dealt with so far this year have involved drug possession. The fourth-biggest problem Stearns has seen is bullying (8 percent), a figure that includes instances of cyber-bullying.

Concerned adults and students have alerted Stearns to posts on social networking sites like Facebook that target a student. Stearns hopes to see such notifications continue, due to the number of teen suicides across the country that have been linked to bullying, and that is the kind of tragedy Stearns said he never wants to see locally.

“That scares the hell out of me; it’s one of my biggest fears,” he said.

This year and last school year, Stearns said, there have been more fights between students than usual. Stearns attributed that trend to the harsh financial environment many families are now living in.

“I think kids are coming to school angry about what the economy has done to their families,” he said. “Some of them have lost their homes.”

It’s equally tough to see a young person heading down the wrong path, Stearns said, but that’s another instance where he believes he can make a difference in his role as an SRO. Recently, for example, Stearns had to charge a youth with marijuana possession.

“The student knows they’re going to be held accountable, and that we’re trying to teach them that there are rules we have to live by, but also that it’s not the end of the world,” said the officer. “It’s a way to make a positive out of a negative.”

Each day, Lincoln arrives at school before students arrive and immediately checks incident reports from the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office to see if there were any overnight arrests or events that may adversely impact a student.

“When I see that student in the morning, I’ll make it a point to go over and talk to them,” said Lincoln.

Mount View High School Principal Cheri Towle said the conversation that Lincoln starts sometimes continues with her, particularly if the affected student appears to be struggling emotionally.

“That way we can see if they’re OK to stay for the day,” she said.

Because Lincoln makes himself available to students at key points of the day — at the front door to greet students each morning, during the lunch break and at the end of the day when students head home, for example — he’s also getting better at recognizing when there may be something wrong with a particular student.

“I am starting to pick up on a lot of that now,” he said.

Lincoln said even though he is still a fairly new presence in the schools, students have already begun looking to him for answers to some of their questions.

“They always want to know what’s on your utility belt,” said Lincoln. “And a lot of times, I’ll get kids who want to know what it’s like to be a police officer.”

The types of incidents Lincoln deals with vary, and often a flurry of activity will follow a stretch of relatively uneventful days. One day he may be speaking with students at Troy Elementary School about winter safety, and the next he may be helping a pair of high school students work through a heated disagreement, or explaining the court system to a student who is facing charges.

“Maybe a student made a poor decision and is now in a predicament, but they know Gerry is here to provide support, and to explain to them what they can expect,” said Towle.

Building the programs, and connections

Terry Kenniston, assistant principal at BAHS, remembered when some parents, students, school directors and high school staff expressed apprehension — if not downright opposition — to the idea of having an armed police officer working in the district schools when the topic first arose in the former SAD 34 nearly a decade ago.

In 2004, the SAD 34 school board rejected a proposal to seek a federal grant that would have paid the lion’s share of the cost of bringing an SRO on board at the high school in Belfast.

But when the issue came up at a school board meeting just a few years later, things were different. BAHS students and staff were dealing with the aftermath of a series of incidents that occurred at the end of 2007 and into 2008, including a bomb threat and a fire that was intentionally started in a boys’ bathroom.

In the weeks that followed the Dec. 19, 2007 arson, Belfast police were also investigating the discovery of five firearms that were reportedly in the possession of a total of four BAHS students. The investigation revealed that one of those guns was loaded, and had been kept on school grounds.

Those events reminded Kenniston of others that have occurred in schools around the nation over the years, and of incidents closer to home, too, such as the 1996 case of a student firing a rifle at Gardiner High School and taking two students hostage before surrendering.

That incident ended far better than the April 20, 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, when two teens killed 12 fellow students and a teacher and wounded a total of 24 others before taking their own lives.

Closer to home, Randall Hofland entered the Stockton Springs Elementary School on Halloween in 2008, where he took several children hostage while wielding a handgun. Police were able to apprehend Hofland without incident, and none of the children were physically hurt during the incident.

“During the investigation of the fire in the [BAHS] bathroom, a lot came out about what was going on with some of those individuals who were involved,” Kenniston remembered, speaking during a recent interview. “We learned there were guns in lockers and guns in cars. Then we thought, ‘Maybe we do need more in the school.'”

In an effort to learn more about SRO programs prior to the start of the one in RSU 20, Kenniston spent a couple of days at a Portland-area high school that had two school resource officers working in the building. While there, Kenniston saw a number of students going to the SRO offices throughout the day seeking advice on everything from relationships and problems at home to what their own legal rights were in certain situations.

And those ongoing connections did not go unnoticed by the school administrators, Keniston said.

“The principal said [the SRO’s] have the best relationships with the kids out of everyone in the building,” remembered Kenniston.

But as Stearns learned in his first few days on the job, those kinds of relationships are not built overnight. At first, Stearns recalled, there were some students who made it obvious they were not happy about having a police officer in their school. Some BAHS staff members, he said, were also slow to welcome his presence.

“Some of the teachers came up to me and said they were one of the people who didn’t want this position,” said Stearns,

Lincoln said he, too, initially encountered some of the same adversarial attitudes from students. One middle school student in particular, Lincoln recalled, was being disrespectful to teachers and school administrators, and was not much nicer when the officer went over to introduce himself. Despite the student’s hostile demeanor, Lincoln told the youth he would always be available to him, just as he is for every RSU 3 student.

“I told him I was still going to say hi to him when I saw him,” said Lincoln.

About three weeks ago, Lincoln said, that same youth approached him, said hello and started talking about the progress he is making in school.

“He’s doing really well now and that’s good to see,” said Lincoln.

Stearns said many BAHS staffers have since come around after having worked with him for a few years, and students who may have wanted nothing to do with building a relationship with the SRO a few years ago have since come to consider him a friend.

“Even the kids that I have to charge with something, a lot of times the first place they come when they get back from suspension is right in here to apologize,” said Stearns.

That kind of connection is huge, said BAHS Principal Stephen Fitzpatrick, and epitomizes what the SRO program is all about.

“Students get to see law enforcement from a different perspective, and see Greg as a resource to them as opposed to having the adversarial relationship that happens between the public and police in some instances,” he said.

The addition of the school resource officer at BAHS appears to be a welcome change among the younger population, too, according to a few students who talked with VillageSoup.

One BAHS upperclassman said, “It makes things a lot safer. I know I had very bad experiences in Belfast,” adding that at one point he was punched in the face by another student.

He said he has been more bothered by other security measures that the school administration has taken in recent years, such as the elimination of study halls in the cafeteria because of its close proximity to the main entrance.

The youth said that change was enacted to decrease the likelihood of a tragedy, such as an armed person entering the school and opening fire on the students, for example.

The student said overall, it is comforting to know there is “an extra set of eyes” at the school in the event that illegal or dangerous activities do occur.

“If something happens you don’t have to wait for a police officer,” he said.

Another Belfast student agreed.

“I definitely think it is doing a lot more good than bad,” he said.

The second student said BAHS graduates have told him there were a lot more fights on school property prior to the start of the SRO program, and he said students are now less likely to engage in that behavior because there is an officer in the school.

He said having an officer in school is something he’s gotten used to, and now he sees Stearns as an administrator, similar to the principal or the vice principal.

“I’m probably more intimidated by the vice principal [Kenniston] than the school resource officer,” he said.

Welcome changes

Kenniston described the climate at BAHS since Stearns came on board as “nothing but better.”

“Any time we’ve had issues [in the past] where we had to call law enforcement, they were always really good about responding, but we’d have to go through this whole process twice,” he said.

Kenniston explained that prior to Stearns’ arrival, school administrators would have conducted interviews with students who were believed to be involved in a particular incident, only to have police come to the school and go through the same motions.

“Now we do everything all together,” said Kenniston.

Kenniston said overall disciplinary issues have decreased at school as well, and he attributed much of that change to the students’ drive to keep their school free of negative activity.

“We’re seeing that kids don’t want stuff going on in their school that shouldn’t be, like drugs and harassment,” said Kenniston.

Having Stearns available at school to listen to those concerns and take necessary action, said Kenniston, has been a huge part of that movement for positive change at the high school.

“[Students] know they have another avenue they can take to clean up their school,” he said.

In RSU 3, Mount View High School Assistant Principal Tom Lynch said “the number of office referrals are significantly less than what they were two months ago.”

Lynch said prior to Lincoln’s arrival high school administrators would have to wait for either a Waldo County Sheriff’s deputy or a Maine State Police trooper to come to school to assist with a disciplinary or legal problem. During that wait time, Lynch said, an administrator was often out of commission until police arrived because someone had to sit with and supervise the student involved.

“The biggest problem was obviously the time it took [for an officer to arrive],” said Lynch. “You may have had to sit with a student for half an hour, or 45 minutes.”

Since Lincoln has been at the Mount View campus, those kinds of matters can be dealt with instantly, and Lincoln is also available to follow up on the issue afterwards.

“It’s totally different than it was before,” said Lynch.

Lynch and Towle say the change in the number of office referrals this year is the result of both Lincoln’s presence in the schools and higher behavior expectations that have been advocated to the students by staff and administrators.

“It’s about building a school culture where more kids could feel safe,” said Towle.

Lynch said when it comes to disciplinary issues, he and Towle are very clear about what consequences a student will face and when.

“I’ll say, ‘This is your punishment this time, but if it happens again, you’re going to be talking to the school resource officer,'” said Lynch.

Both Stearns and Lincoln say while they work to keep schools as safe as possible, the biggest part of their jobs is to act as a resource — just as their job title implies.

In RSU 3, for example, Lincoln’s presence has inspired a fledgling program Towle calls “Lunch and Learn,” where students and staff brainstorm about different topics that students may wish to be more educated about, such as the dangers of the synthetic hallucinogenic drug known as bath salts.

“He’s not just dealing with incidents, he’s also an educator and a counselor,” said Towle.

Stearns said taking the time to learn students’ names, getting to know a little about their lives and offering guidance when a student makes a mistake are equally important facets of being an effective school resource officer.

“It’s not at all what people think it is,” he said. “We’re not cops marching down the hallways looking to bust kids.”

Looking forward

This year’s seniors were freshmen when the school resource officer program was implemented at BAHS, and Stearns said it’s been a pleasure to see the students mature and learn. He said he is now looking forward to watching the incoming freshman class grow, too, and hopes to develop similar relationships with those youths along the way.

“They’re characters, all of them, and they really are a lot of fun,” said Stearns. “I’m at a point where everyone here knows me, and now a lot of the middle school kids know me as well.”

Stearns credited the continued partnership he has with the community, students and school faculty for how well the SRO program has worked in RSU 20.

“The success of the program doesn’t lie with me, I’m just a small part of it,” said Stearns.

Lincoln agreed.

“You’ve got to have that support to make this work,” he said.

Lincoln, who started working for the Sheriff’s Office in July of 2008 and previously spent 10 years working at the Newport Police Department after retiring from the Air Force, said he was interested in the resource officer position because it afforded him the chance to make a difference.

“I saw it as a good opportunity to work with kids and maybe have a positive influence on them,” said the officer. “And the kids, they energize me.”

The students, it seems, have responded positively to Lincoln.

MVHS junior Sam Walker talked with Lincoln about a foreign language class he is taking during a recent lunch period at the school.

“He’s a nice guy,” said Walker of Lincoln. “He’s one of the nicest cops I’ve ever met.”