Students and some community members shared concerns about school safety with the Regional School Unit 71 Board of Directors Feb. 26; however, the board curtailed its discussion of the topic until a future meeting to be held in March.

The board added the topic to its regular agenda in response to the Valentine's Day school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that resulted in the deaths of 17 people. Comments from a half-dozen of the 25 attendees at the RSU 71 board meeting at Troy Howard Middle School focused on securing buildings and restoring the school resource officer position.

Several speakers reported regularly finding the front doors of school buildings unlocked during school hours.

Belfast's school resource officer Greg Sterns has been out on medical leave since November. Belfast Police Chief Mike McFadden said department has maintained contact with the schools in Sterns' absence but has not had a full-time presence there.

Stearns was hired in 2008 as the first school resource officer for the Belfast-area district that was then School Administrative District 34. The position was created after an arson fire in a boys' bathroom and reports that students had brought loaded guns into the high school.

McFadden said it's a complicated situation because it involves a personnel matter with a position that requires specialized training. He currently is looking toward a permanent replacement with some adjustments to the position based on what the department has learned during Stearns' tenure.

Waldo County Sheriff Jeffrey Trafton, who was Belfast's police chief when the school resource officer position was created, addressed the RSU 71 board Feb. 26 and emphasized making sure school buildings are secure.

"We all need to be talking about facilities," he said. "If somebody decides to wreak havoc in a school, we need physical security to slow them down."

Trafton said he's particularly concerned about outlying schools, which are farther from the law enforcement offices in Belfast.

Ames Elementary School Secretary Alison Harvey said front desk at the Tri-town school is often short-staffed because principals, nurses, guidance counselors and other positions are shared among several schools.

"The teachers are there, but they're going to be in their classrooms," she said, adding that if she is alone in the office and has to dispense medication for a student, she sometimes has to ask the custodian to cover the front desk.

"There's just not enough people," she said.

Dylan Mitchell, chairman of the Young Republicans Club at Belfast Area High School, said he's felt less secure at the school during Stearns' absence. Mitchell said he interviewed other students, who reported feeling the same way.

"I don't think we're scared of guns," he said, "but I think we're scared of being left in a situation where we don't have somebody who is prepared to defend us, who is armed, and somebody who is capable of protecting us."

RSU 71 Superintendent Paul Knowles noted that the school resource officer position is controlled by Belfast Police, from which RSU 71 buys the service. In response to a question from a parent, whose child said the school doesn't drill for the event of a shooter, Knowles said the schools do regular "lockdown" drills.

"We revisit it every year," he said. "School safety is paramount to us."

The board will host an open community forum about school safety March 15 from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Belfast Area High School. Board Chairwoman Caitlin Hills said the purpose would be to discuss current school safety procedures and explore possible improvements, including ideas that have worked in other communities.

Editor's note: the date for the community forum was changed after the RSU 71 board meeting to avoid conflicts with other events. The information above has been updated.