ELLSWORTH — Police Cpl. Shawn Merchant is passionate about his new role as school resource officer (SRO), if only he could spend some time on the campuses this year.
Like so many first responder agencies, Ellsworth currently does not have enough police officers to cover all shifts, so Merchant is temporarily back on the regular beat, he said, after starting the SRO position last spring.
Merchant taught the DARE — Drug Abuse Resistance Education — program for six years. So, taking on the school resource officer role seemed a natural fit, he said.
“If there’s ever an issue, [students] can come to me,” Merchant said. “My door is always open. I’m just a police officer. I’m a cool guy. I get along with everyone.”
Merchant has seven years with the Ellsworth Police Department, on the heels of 10 years with the Southwest Harbor Police Department. He was first offered the SRO job when he joined the EPD in 2015, but at that time he didn’t want to “come off the road,” he said. When the position opened up last year, he decided to step in.
But not being able to jump fully in at the start of the school year has been rough, he said, joking, “Hold up, guys, I’m coming.”
Speaking from his office off the Ellsworth High School lobby, Merchant said he knew policing would be different in the schools than on the streets.
“It is way different,” he said. “You still deal with people, but they’re younger.”
The parent of an adult son and two adult daughters, Merchant said raising the three through their high school years helps him relate to that age group. So does his past coaching of girls’ soccer and basketball. However, the big age differences between elementary, middle and high school students means they react differently to his presence in the hallways.
“Being around younger kids and them looking up to you is a real cool thing,” he said. “I go in there, I’m a rock star. The kids laugh and joke with me.”
High school students were more hesitant to approach him, he said. “Then they realized I was cool.”
Merchant’s “cool” persona provides a pathway into the high school, where he’d like the chance to help students in positive ways.
“That’s the way I look at [being the] SRO, being able to mentor the kids,” he said. “I’m hoping that will happen.”
Merchant shows up in full uniform, including his bullet-proof vest, although he said Police Chief Glenn Moshier gave the OK for him to “dress down a bit.”
During his first few months last spring, he dealt with the same issues high schools everywhere currently grapple with: vaping, bullying, harassment and marijuana.
“It’s a lot of the same stuff as on the road, but you have to speak to parents,” he said. “We don’t normally arrest juveniles. We summons them and talk together with their parents, unless it’s something really bad, which hasn’t happened yet.”
“There’s the legal part that we have to abide by,” he continued. “But I don’t want to have to give these students summons.” Before student actions reach that point, Merchant said he’d rather ask, “What can I do to help you?”
Merchant still teaches DARE classes and a bullying class to fifth-graders at EEMS. The hardest part, he said, is seeing students from the bullying class then bully other students.
“I try to educate the parents,” he said. “And I’ve also had students come up to me in the middle school asking, how do I deal with this? The biggest thing I can say is, walk away.”