Thursday, February 27, 2003

Moving the ad message

Published in the Current

As the Goodwill Industries trucks roll across the state of Maine, their new designs are thanks to a Cape Elizabeth man, who has found a way to make
money from the sides of trucks.

Don Mackenzie has founded Mobile Marketing Solutions, which sells space on what are, after all, basically moving billboards.

Mackenzie used to sell technology to trucking companies and was familiar with trucking fleets in other areas of the country that sold ads on the sides of their trucks.

Eight months ago, when Mackenzie and his family moved to Maine from Atlanta, he decided to put his idea in motion.

His first challenge was to find a trucking fleet that would work with him. He found it “very hard to find a fleet” that was interested. Most companies wanted just their own logos on the sides of their trucks, if there were any markings at all.

One day, when Mackenzie was driving somewhere, he saw a white truck with nothing really on its sides and followed it to a Goodwill store. When he called to ask if the company would be interested, he found that someone there had always wanted to do just exactly what he was proposing.

In exchange for an ongoing ad campaign for Goodwill on the side of one truck, Mackenzie’s fledgling company had its fleet.

Best of all, the Goodwill trucks run regular routes in populated areas, picking up donations at drop-off centers and also delivering goods to the company’s retail stores. Most trucking companies run their routes far from where people are, because traffic slows them down. And many of them run at night, again to avoid congestion.

Not Goodwill trucks, which are on the road for six to 10 hours per day.

“They’re always where the people are,” Mackenzie said.

He had the trucks fitted with what are called “changeable fleet graphic systems,” essentially easy-to-change billboards. Aluminum rails hold a heavy vinyl sheet tight against the side of the truck.

The vinyl itself is printed by a firm in Seattle that can put any graphic or text on the fabric. It takes a couple of hours to put on a sign, which Mackenzie often has done at Wagon Masters in Scarborough.

His goal is to get the company to $60,000 in revenue by June and triple that by next year. He wants to expand the business beyond Maine, into the New England region and then into the mid-Atlantic states.

Scarborough hunting ranch escapes ban

Published in the Current

A so-called “hunting ranch” in Scarborough has been spared from a proposed law that would have banned the hunting of game animals inside enclosures like the 200-acre Bayley Hill Hunt Park here.

The bill, proposed by Rep. Tom Bull, D-Freeport, and Rep. Matt Dunlap, D-Old Town, failed in a legislative committee Monday.

“Fortunately, (Monday) it was completely squashed,” said Nick Richardson, manager of the Bayley Hill Deer and Elk Farm and the adjoining hunt park. “It was really a storm in a teacup.”

Hunting ranches are typically several hundred acres of forest and wild land, Richardson said. They are stocked with deer and elk raised on farms like Bayley Hill’s farm. The animals are then released into wildland-type areas with fences around them.

Hunters pay the owners of the ranches hundreds and even thousands of dollars to hunt on the ranch’s land and are sent home with trophy heads as well as meat processed from the carcass of any animals shot.

Critics of the ranches say the practice is inhumane, effectively hunting an animal that has been penned up. Ranch supporters, including Richardson, say the animals are allowed to run free in natural environments, where they are hard to find and shoot, and added that hunters are hunting for meat as well as trophies.

“They’re not just coming to shoot an animal for its horns,” Richardson said.

Further, economic and regulatory pressures on supplier farms mean it is already difficult to make ends meet. Without being able to sell trophy animals to hunting ranches, the business would fail, Richardson said.

Hunting ranches bring tourist dollars into the state, helping the economy, Richardson said.

Cape warns school support slipping

Published in the Current

Facing a $486,000 cut in state education funding, the Cape Elizabeth School Board is proposing a 2003-2004 budget with no new programs, and the superintendent is warning that Cape schools are “falling behind” in their ability to meet the community’s high expectations.

Based on Gov. John Baldacci’s proposed budget, the Cape school budget, up 2.75 percent over this year’s total, would result in a 4.06 percent tax increase. District statistics indicate that if state funding were kept constant, the tax increase would be 0.23 percent. Baldacci’s budget has yet to be approved by the Legislature.

Several town councilors had asked the School Board for no more than a 2 percent tax rate increase.

Superintendent Tom Forcella told School Board members at a workshop Tuesday night that he did not hear a consensus from the council on that. “What I heard at that meeting were two or three council members” asking for the 2 percent cap, he said.

There is new spending in the budget, to provide additional help to meet Maine Learning Results and the federal No Child Left Behind requirements, as well as adding legally required special education staff members.

Enrollment at the three schools is expected to be flat, meaning no regular teaching positions will be added or cut.

The $15,328,320 budget also restores half of the capital improvement funding cut from this year’s budget. Additionally, it uses $200,000 in savings from a spending freeze last year to offset revenue shortfalls. The board had previously asked the council to use that $200,000 to make urgent repairs at the high school.

Forcella said the proposed budget is not enough to halt a slide in Cape’s education spending, and he painted a picture of crisis in Cape’s financial support of the schools.

“We’re not even maintaining where we’ve been,” he said. “We’re falling behind.”

Citing the community’s pride in the quality of its schools, Forcella made it clear the district wants to be able to spend more money. “If our expectation is to be the best, we need to have the resources to get us there.”

He said further cuts will jeopardize the quality of the schools, including its highly successful music program, which recently won acclaim at the Berklee Jazz Festival in Boston.

“(Low spending) will take a toll at some point in time,” Forcella said.

Forcella reiterated his concerns that Cape’s per-pupil spending is dropping, as compared with other districts in Cumberland County and around the state, including many to which the district often compares itself.

“We have people who want the highest performing district” but are not supporting it with the financial backing given to other high-performing districts, Forcella said.

Board member Kevin Sweeney said the per-pupil comparison shows a very different view from statistics the Town Council has recently cited, indicating that Cape Elizabeth has higher education spending per capita than any other town in Maine.

Despite his misgivings, Forcella put forward a budget that includes no new programs, and incorporates several cost-saving initiatives.

The proposed budget includes savings of nearly $20,000 by sharing a psychologist with Cumberland and North Yarmouth rather than contracting out those services,

It also assumes two large construction projects – renovations to Pond Cove and the high school – will not go forward in time to avoid using portable classrooms.

Business Manager Pauline Aportria told the board the budget included savings of $57,000 in architectural fees for the two projects. “We don’t need Bob Howe,” the project architect, Aportria said. The budget does include $10,000 for architectural work related to putting portable classrooms at Pond Cove.

One possible variable is the cost of heating oil. The budget assumes the district will be able to purchase oil for $1 per gallon, but it has not yet been able to lock in a price with any suppliers, Aportria said.

Possible areas for future cuts include athletics and the technology budget, according to board member George Entwistle. “This is going to be a tough year. We may need to make some tough choices,” he said.

The technology budget presently includes money to purchase a student information system, which would track students in all grade levels, keeping records of attendance, grades and progress toward the Maine Learning Results.

Death be not subtle: Thanatron full of crushing blows

Published in the Portland Phoenix

You read it here first: When the generation now in their 20s and 30s take political power in this country, assisted suicide will be made legal. Nobody wants to die the way we have watched our grandparents and parents die. Much better to die with dignity than to slowly ebb away like a sandbar before a storm.

But dying with a party, before you’re even past your prime? Isn’t that overkill? Carolyn Gage raises questions like these in Thanatron (the latest production by Cauldron & Labrys, her all-women’s theater project) in which a middle-aged mother of four (Molly Hawthorne, played by Liz Rensenbrink) fears her memory is failing, and decides she wants to die. A clever, if overly enthusiastic, Kevorkian–like doctor (played by Sheila Jackson) has determined a means by which people can calculate their quality of life, thereby determining "with 95-percent accuracy" who will want to off themselves and when. He has also built a death machine — Thanatron — to "take the risk out of" suicide.

To make herself feel better about her precipitous decision, Molly throws a farewell party, inviting her whole family and the neighbors. The play follows the family through the lead-up to the party, as they struggle with the concepts of leaving and remembering, and past what is literally a moment of truth.

Is Molly a "progressive woman" who is "ahead of her time," as her husband Frank (Jessica Porter) says, or is she just wishing for release, already so beaten down that she yields to her stereotypically traditional mother even in choosing the dress in which she’ll die.

The family — with the exception of the youngest, Caitlin (Megan Dauphinais), and the lesbian housekeeper (Dani, played by Vic Symonds) — greets Molly’s decision with obvious glee. The two sons go so far as to hand-build a custom-fit coffin for their mother to repose in, and Frank keeps reminding everyone that it is "almost time."

Clearly, Gage has set out to hit the audience over the head with the idea that men, families, and society kill women spiritually long before they die physically. As such, it is a success both on stage — where a renewed Molly literally hits the doctor on the head, leaving him to stagger across the stage into the coffin — and off, when the audience leaves with no room for post-play dialogue or introspection.

All conflicts are resolved on stage, leaving no openings for wonder or further intellectual investigation after the show is over. As the play ends, women are vindicated, triumphant and empowered. This excellent and exciting message is delivered, over and over again, in a painstakingly literal play.

Nothing is left to the imagination, nor even to involved spectation. When there is a point to be made, it is laid out in so many words. First there is the doctor, played by a woman but clearly a male character, and his phallic-symbol IV-drip stand feeding on the very idea of the death of a woman. Caitlin and Dani, one who says she wants to be a lesbian when she grows up and the other already there, conspire to foul the IV drip to prevent Molly’s death, and to supply, instead, a revelatory dose of truth serum, transforming death into truth.

All of the elements — the family’s grim excitement, the strong women’s objections, and the husband’s leering affair with the still-passionate neighbor — end up as large, glass bottles to be smashed over the head of each audience member.

When the time comes and Molly begins to reveal memories she has repressed, the party turns ugly. As Molly remembers repressed abuse, the men in the room scuffle and murder her, preferring a dead woman to the truth.

But even the ugliness draws a laugh, and indeed the play is written to be a comic farce rather than the morbidly serious drama it could also be. Characters are cartoons and play out stereotypical roles well beyond the normal realm of absurdity, which results in audience members laughing their heads off as the death machine is erected on stage.

Dani and Caitlin stage a further redemptive moment for Molly, whom they have managed to save from herself, and even this bears an obvious message that Gage does not leave to the spectator’s brain, instead forcing the issue by delivering the message in dialogue.

The play is darkly funny and well-cast, with Rensenbrink exceeding all expectations of a loving but disoriented mother, Dauphinais acting her age to a T, and the stage-debuting Symonds doing very well but needing to deliver her lines without cracking a smile when she knows the audience will laugh.

The opening and closing scenes are the hardest parts to handle: the beginning seems very nearly not part of the play at all, and the final word is spoken so often that it becomes impossible not to remember, remember, remember, remember.

Written and directed by Carolyn Gage. With Megan Dauphinais, Sheila Jackson, Muriel Kenderdine, Jessica Porter, Liz Rensenbrink, and Vic Symonds. At Portland Stage Company’s Studio Theater, through March 16. Call (207) 774-0465.

Thursday, February 20, 2003

Student assessment rules a maze

Published in the Current

Despite district concerns that as many as 20 current eighth-graders may not satisfy state requirements for high school graduation, Cape Elizabeth teachers are not getting the help they need from the state.

“There are still a lot of unanswered questions and missing pieces,” said Sarah Simmonds, the district’s facilitator of curriculum, assessment and professional development.

In the meantime, teachers are continuing their work creating a local assessment and tracking system, and figuring out how to identify and support students who are struggling to meet educational standards.

It’s something the schools have been working on for a while, Simmonds said. The effort began a few years ago when Superintendent Tom Forcella started to develop a district-wide Future Direction Plan, Simmonds said.

Since then, state and federal requirements and guidelines have entered the picture, with the Maine Learning Results and the No Child Left Behind Act. All of these leave districts and teachers in a bind. They know they need to move toward the goals of the laws, but need government guidance about what exactly will satisfy the requirements.

There are two big questions. First, will students be permitted to receive high school diplomas if they do not meet the Maine Learning Results standards in all eight content areas?

Second, what impact will those standards have on special education students?

The state has not yet made clear to schools what will be required for issuing a diploma. If diplomas are available only to students who meet all content standards, other students, entitled only to a certificate of attendance, may suffer in the job market, Simmonds said.

But schools also want to acknowledge the achievements of students who have met the standards. “We have to understand the consequences,” Simmonds said.

Special education could be another variable. Individual education plans, developed for all students in special education, lay out goals for students to work toward. When adapted to take into account students’ special needs, those plans, called IEPs, can differ from curricular goals for non-special-education students.

If students who meet the goals of the IEPs are given diplomas, regardless of whether they meet the Learning Results standards, more parents will be asking for their kids to get special education services, Simmonds said.

“Learning Results is about high standards for all kids,” Simmonds said. That much is clear, but “the devil is in the details,” she said.

Students who need support should get it, Simmonds said. Teachers are working on how to identify them systematically, as well as how to meet their needs once students at risk of not graduating are identified.

A support structure is likely to include help during the academic year, possibly from teachers or other school staff, who are available during students’ free periods or before or after school.

It may also include what Simmonds called “a standards-based summer school,” which would be different from the stereotypical summer school, because students would be given assistance with the specific areas in which they need help. A student with fairly few needs could spend as little as a couple of days in summer school if things went well, Simmonds said, while a student who needed help in several areas or had significant difficulties with a set of topics could spend a few weeks.

Other problems are more administrative. To respect the tradition of “local control” for school districts, the state Legislature laid out broad standards and left it to schools to determine how those standards would be met, measured and recorded.

Many teachers never learned how to do this during their training, Simmonds said. The state has made available guideline assessments and standards for teachers to use, but most teachers around the state don’t want to use the state’s suggestions, and start to make changes.

Documenting the outcomes from the assessments is also a challenge. State and federal officials are only now beginning to specify how they need to receive information from schools, and there are others who need that information, too. Parents and teachers need to know how their students are measuring up to the standards.

To further complicate matters, colleges still look for grade-point-averages, class rank and SAT scores, which will need to be on official transcripts.

In the end, the bottom line should be that if a student does not get a diploma after four years at CEHS, “it shouldn’t be a surprise,” Simmonds said.

On Active Duty: Airman First Class Mike Layton

Published in the Current

Airman First Class Mike Layton, a 2001 CEHS graduate, has been in Bahrain providing support for the war in Afghanistan since his 19th birthday, Nov. 26, 2002. He was initially supposed to be there for 90 days, said his father, also named Mike. But now Mike the younger has been “frozen,” meaning he will be staying in that location for the time being, his father said.

Layton has been in the Air Force for a year and a half. He joined right out of high school and is now assigned to the 509th Security Forces Squadron, which normally provides security at Whiteman Air Force Base, Knob Noster, Mo., the home of the B-2 Stealth bomber.

Layton volunteered for overseas duty, and his father said he wants to be a policeman when he gets out of the military. Layton’s father is himself a 24-year veteran of the Coast Guard now working in law enforcement.

The family e-mails Layton regularly and also sends pre-paid phone cards so Layton can call home, his father said. In addition to the people in his family, “the dog misses him,” his father said.

Cape volunteers become brothers’ keepers

Published in the Current

Several Cape Elizabeth High School students, in cooperation with high school students from other towns and the United Way of Greater Portland, are trying to give homeless teenagers in the area a better shot at making it by providing them with a backpack filled with the essentials of daily life.

Leslie Preti, Whitney Turkanis, Hannah Botto, Mary Ann Chapman and Schuyler Armstrong are among a group called Youth Engaged in Service, or YES, getting teens involved in community service and leadership through the United Way.

They want to put together 50 backpacks, 25 for males and 25 for females, with toiletries, pens, phone cards, batteries and more. The catch is they have to do all the work themselves.

Jessica Esch, the United Way coordinator of the project, said her job is basically to facilitate the kids’ efforts and make sure they all stay more or less on track. It is up to the teens to decide what projects they want to undertake and to carry them out, Esch said.

“It’s a loose group because kids are so busy,” Esch said.

Students find out about it from their friends, who have been involved with it in previous years. “The word just kind of gets spread around the schools,” Botto said.

Three CEHS students were in YES last year, and five are in it this year. Some of the students involved found out about it through the Volunteer Club at the high school. Jill Dalfonso of South Portland, a student at Catherine McAuley High School in Portland, said her school’s Key Club is the way most students learn about YES.

The year’s first task is to decide what the group will focus on. “When we had our first meeting, we just kind of started yelling out random ideas,” Preti said.

They were inspired by a flyer Turkanis had found about the BluePack Project, an initiative giving school and basic hygiene supplies to children in Afghanistan.

“We decided we wanted to help people our own age,” Armstrong said. They are now out soliciting donations of goods and money from community members, businesses and non-profit organizations.

Some of the work involves writing formal grant proposals to organizations like the Libra Foundation.

Other efforts involve heading to a local dentist and asking for help buying toothbrushes, toothpaste and dental floss, or asking Sam’s Club in Scarborough for toiletries.

Donations of money are also helpful, and the students plan how they will spend the money, depending on how the solicitation goes for donations of actual products.

They also learn to revise their plans as they go along, determining – with the help of the staff at the Preble Street Teen Center – that deodorant and socks are more important than, say, playing cards.

They also ensure that each backpack has a personal touch, with a container of nice lotion for young women and shaving cream for the young men.

State cuts local school aid

Published in the Current; co-written with Kate Irish Collins and Josh Williamson

School districts across the state are getting their first look at next year’s state funding for education, and locally it doesn’t look good.

Cape is looking at a reduction of $486,000 in state aid for education and Scarborough is looking at a cut of a little over $600,000. South Portland will actually see a $500,000 increase this year, but the total percentage of the school budget funded by the state will drop to 5 percent, the lowest allowed under state regulation.

The tough budget news comes as the Secretary of State’s Office certified on Tuesday a referendum question that would require the state to pay more to communities in education aid.

The proposal, proposed and backed by the Maine Municipal Association, would require 55 percent of total education expenditures statewide to be funded in the state budget.

The Legislature can either approve the proposal itself or put the question out to voters in November.

The education aid numbers, released this week by the state’s Department of Education, are based on the governor’s proposed budget, but have not yet been through the Legislature’s committee process or been voted on by lawmakers. They provide, however, the first look at how district budgets could be affected.

“This is the starting point for the discussion,” said Jim Watkins at the Department of Education.

Cape Elizabeth Business Manager Pauline Aportria said the expected $486,000 cut this year is on top of the nearly $450,000 cut in 2001-2002.

“It’s going to make life very difficult,” said Superintendent Tom Forcella.

He said the Town Council has asked the schools to keep any budget increase from causing a tax increase of more than 2 percent.

Replacing the money lost from the state with locally raised property taxes would require a 64-cent increase in taxes in Cape, an increase of 3.8 percent.

There is a $3 million “cushion” available to soften the blow, which has yet to be divided among schools throughout the state, but Forcella said it is unclear what that will mean.

Last year there was a $4 million cushion, of which Cape got $200,000.

In Scarborough, the superintendent’s office was all set to present a budget to the Board of Education based on the assumption the town would get the same amount of state aid for education as it did this year.

“There’s no doubt this is a lot for us,” said Herb Hopkins, the school finance director, about the now anticipated cut of $600,000 or more.

“We were hoping for flat funding because of our increasing school enrollment,” he said. Scarborough is expecting an additional 100 students to enroll in the fall.

On Thursday, Feb. 27, at 7 p.m., at Town Hall, the school department plans to hold a public hearing on next year’s school budget, which as it currently stands would total $28.1 million. This represents a 12.6 percent increase over the current school budget, or an additional $2.4 million.

Scarborough Superintendent William Michaud was out of the office this week, and Board of Education Chairman David Beneman was reluctant to comment on the anticipated reduction in state aid, arguing that there has been no formal announcement from the Department of Education.

“The school department certainly did budget planning on the assumption that there would be no increase in general purpose aid, even though we’re going to have an additional 100 students,” Beneman said. “Any decrease in revenue doesn’t affect the cost of running the schools,” however, he added.

South Portland, which lost $1.1 million last year, will see a $500,000 increase this year, bringing state aid up to $2.77 million. However, the total percentage of the school budget funded by the state will drop.

Last year, the state’s $2.2 million contribution was 8 percent of the city’s school budget, but budget increases due largely to the debt service from five elementary school projects mean that even with the aid increase, the state is covering just 5 percent now, the lowest percentage allowed under the funding formula.

“I think we are the only municipality in the state that is a minimum receiver that I am aware, certainly among the larger school districts,” said Polly Ward, business manager for the South Portland school department. “We get so little state aid that we really couldn’t get any less.”

South Portland’s tax base is roughly 65 percent commercial and 35 percent residential, accounting largely for the low funding from the state.

Deal with Pvt. Wars: Then look further afield

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Its Friday opening performance put off by frozen pipes, Pvt. Wars managed to draw a small crowd of about 20 people Saturday night, hours after a worldwide peace rally’s local event ended in a super-cooled Monument Square. Rather than chanting anti-Bush slogans or expressing concern about the well-being of the people of Iraq, however, the Cast — a grassroots theater company made up of three actors who rope their friends into lighting and stage managing — takes a look at war from the other end, through the lens of a Vietnam-era Army hospital. It is a reminder of how war affects people, distills them to their most basic characteristics, and of how humor may yet save us all.

Beautifully acted, hilariously funny, and backed by well selected music from the 1970s, Pvt. Wars deserves to fill the house at the St. Lawrence. It shows us the best we have to hope for if war does break out: If our military casualties have the resilience and humanity of these three characters, our world will get on fine.

Woodruff Gately (David A. Currier) is a shell-shocked simpleton with a good heart, determined to fix a broken radio, no matter how many working radios he must steal and dismantle to do it. He is able to befriend Natwick (J.P. Guimont), a foppish Long Island boy who joined the Army to continue, it seems, his trend of failures begun while he was growing up. Natwick’s physical injuries are hidden from view, but his psychological ones are very visible. Fortunately, actor Guimont’s senses of irony, delivery, and comedic timing were untouched by Natwick’s war.

Their relationship is complicated and enhanced by Silvio (Craig Bowden), who becomes a sort of misfit squad leader for the trio. It is Silvio who drives the dialogue, bringing up wide-ranging topics based primarily on his own fears of inadequacy now that he has had his testicles and penis blown off by shrapnel.

Rather than dealing with this injury in a depressing way, dwelling on the message the gods are sending him, Silvio chooses to take a more Kramer-type approach, concerned with how underwear feels and its effects on sperm motility.

Conversations between the three are awkward at first, as they adjust to their situations and become friends. As the play develops, they move on into learning more about each other and beginning to prepare for a return to the world.

There is both quiet and agitation on the stage, with between-scenes blackouts used not as a way for actors to move around unseen, but as a time for sound itself to become the performance. Hospital announcements, Natwick’s voiced letters home — clearly covering the truth of his crisis to assuage his parents’ worries — and period music break up the play’s moments and provide reminders that there is a world outside the hospital, and one outside the theater as well.

The actors are all very strong: Currier is bursting with Gately’s dynamic energy and goodwill; Bowden coils, springs, and relaxes like a comic Tarzan, fixing on an idea, ensnaring it and then finding it has escaped; and Guimont’s affected mannerisms and self-assured superiority mask his character’s vulnerabilities as well as any real Long Island boy could. Each has a sense of moment, timing, and expression, drawing out each of the play’s laughs naturally from the audience.

The characters are also well crafted in the writing and fully explored by the actors. Mannerisms, accents, and blocking all build onto the powerful base of the play’s introspection, showing us visually what we can also hear and feel going on in the characters’ lives.

And though it may seem a bit cliché to have the simplest man also be the deepest, Gately, who senses the true meaning of Longfellow’s epic "The Song of Hiawatha," also sees through the fog into the reality of the world outside the hospital, and into which our political leaders could stand to peer. We all have enough to deal with on our own, he says, "And if everybody would fight their own private wars, things would be all right. But, no, people have to stick their noses into other people’s wars."

The humor reigns supreme, however, which, possibly more than politics, is why the three chose the play for production. Looking for three-man shows, they found Pvt. Wars and "couldn’t stop laughing," Guimont says.

Laughter is a powerful weapon of war and tool of healing. Natwick’s admission of cowardice and thoughts of suicide is powerful, as he explains to Gately that a suicide threat is a cry for help. Gately’s replying offer of a razor blade to "help" Natwick, who shaves electric and has no blade, is the ironic punch line. And Silvio’s motivational tactic of radio-parts theft adds a darker, but still funny, aspect to the show, forcing us again to see beyond initial purposes and into our own hidden agendas.

Pvt. Wars
By James McLure. Produced by the Cast. With Craig Bowden, David A. Currier, and J.P. Guimont. At St. Lawrence Arts and Community Center, through March 9. Call (207) 775-5568.

Thursday, February 13, 2003

Board says support for schools dropping

Published in the Current

While the Town Council likes to point out that Cape Elizabeth spends more per capita on schools than any other town in the state, the School Board says the truth is the town’s support of schools is dropping and it now ranks 30th in terms of per pupil spending.

“You’re not putting into your school system what other districts are,” Superintendent Tom Forcella said of the town’s contribution at Tuesday night’s School Board meeting.

“The amount of money we’re spending per pupil has fallen dramatically” compared with other schools, Forcella said. “We’re not putting in the effort financially that the towns around us are putting into their schools,” he said.

School officials say the town’s per-pupil spending is being outpaced by towns throughout the state, including many in Cumberland County, to which the school system regularly compares itself.

In 1995-1996, Cape was fourth in the state and second in the county in per pupil spending, when compared with other K-12 school districts with more than 500 students, according to state statistics distributed by Forcella.

In 2001-2002, the district was 30th in the state and seventh in the county, indicating what Forcella called “a continuous downward trend.”

The state Department of Education ranks schools’ per-pupil spending after factoring out transportation costs and loan payments. Adding those in would probably lower the town’s ranking even more, Forcella said.

Board member Kevin Sweeney said the numbers disturbed him because the district made a significant push to raise teacher salaries three years ago, which seemed to have no effect on the slipping ranking. He went on to say that cuts already have been made wherever they can be, and even in some places that might not be able to be sustained with less money.

“When it comes to what kids need in classrooms and what teachers need in classrooms, we’ve been cutting,” Sweeney said.

Finance Committee Chairman Elaine Moloney said the School Board was reassessing how much effort townspeople want them to make on behalf of the schools.

“We really will be looking at getting a better feel from our community about how much support they want to put behind our budget,” she said.

Sweeney running again, two undecided

Published in the Current

Cape School Board member Kevin Sweeney will run for re-election in the spring, he told the Current. His second three-year term expires in June. “I have unfinished business,” Sweeney said. He wants to continue looking after the interests of special needs and marginal students, particularly in light of the Maine Learning Results requirements.

“I want to make sure that those kids are not shortchanged” by being offered a certificate of attendance instead of a real high school diploma, he said.

“We are facing very very tough times,” Sweeney said. “I can hit the ground running,” he added, citing his six years on the board, as well as his experience as chairman of most of the School Board’s subcommittees.

He said people important to him “have convinced me that I’m still relevant to addressing issues in the schools.”

The terms of board members Elaine Moloney and Susan Steinman also expire this year. Steinman said she is “leaning toward not” running again, though she is still technically undecided. She does not plan to take out nominating papers, but pointed out that she ran last time as a write-in candidate.

Moloney, currently serving as the board’s finance chairman, said she is “considering” running again, but will wait until she sees about community support for the schools in the coming budget process.

Maine Med researchers delve into life

Published in the Current

The Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Scarborough is the site of world-class, groundbreaking medical research on a par with the Mayo Clinic and the Scripps Research Institute.

The building’s spiral staircase evokes the concept of DNA, and a poster in a lab tells scientists that research mice have saved more people than firefighters.

MMCRI permits Maine Med to function as a teaching hospital, said Dr. Ken Ault, MMCRI’s director.

Normally those types of hospitals are right next to a medical school, with clinical work and basic scientific research complementing each other. Maine Med doesn’t have a med school nearby, and is only affiliated with the University of Vermont medical school in Burlington.

“The main reason we’re here is to provide the academic environment that otherwise is missing,” Ault said. MMCRI is one of only about 20 research institutes around the country not affiliated with a medical school. “It’s fairly unusual,” he said.

For the first 10 years, the institute was funded almost entirely by the hospital and did the research needed by medical professionals caring for patients.

Six years ago, though, the institute decided to focus its efforts, to be more effective in its research and to respond to the increasingly competitive biomedical world. It committed to building the structure that is now tucked away on the Maine Med campus in Scarborough, and getting “on the map” of biomedical research, Ault said.

The effort has succeeded, with world-class scientists at MMCRI looking into four wide sectors of medical subjects: cardiology and blood vessel formation; molecular biology, including work using adult stem cells; applying academic research to clinical practice; and clinical trials of procedures or drugs in the FDA approval process.

Some of the things they are learning about include how cancer cells are able to attract blood vessels to help them grow and, correspondingly, how doctors may be able to shut off blood flow to tumors. They also are looking at how cells organize themselves into an organism, which could permit scientists to develop genetic treatments for certain conditions.

Doctors are also looking into the question, “how do we practice medicine?” Ault said. They study how different doctors treat similar conditions and compare the results of each treatment to determine the most clinically effective way of helping people get healthy.

“That’s a big area of research,” Ault said. It can show doctors not only how well and how quickly patients recover, but also how to keep costs down, by determining what procedures work best for different patients. Two clinical studies include work on early intervention for patients bordering on psychosis and how dialysis affects patients over the long term.

The institute attracts research grants from the National Institutes of Health, non-profits like the American Heart Association and pharmaceutical companies, among others, Ault said.

He is looking to expand the institute, but not too much. He wants to get more doctors involved in clinical trials and to add on more basic science as well.

There are 13 graduate students from the University of Maine who are doing work at MMCRI, as part of a program with UMaine and the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor.

Students are taught to do biomedical research as part of their courses of study.

They get to use state-of-the-art equipment, including machines that can build molecules of specific types or ones that can tear apart molecules and tell scientists how they are constructed.

And they interact with people in clinical trials, the ones Ault calls “heroes,” making sacrifices of themselves to help researchers better understand medicine.

“It’s not for you, it’s for the greater good,” he said.

Third-graders and parents work on character in Cape

Published in the Current

It was almost bedlam in the Pond Cove gym around midday Tuesday. All of the third-graders and about 60 of their parents had gathered to share what they had learned in character-building sessions earlier in the morning.

The parents had met in the town center fire station to participate in a workshop entitled “Parenting: the biggest job we’ll ever have,” led by Laura Gauld, co-director of the Hyde School in Bath, which focuses on character building and involving the whole family and community in raising and teaching children.

“Our kids are not in their comfort zone” for most of the day, Gauld told parents. She encouraged parents to get out of their own comfort zones, to become role models by trying new things. “We will set an example for our kids to follow,” she said.

Gauld also cautioned parents against trying to become friends with their kids. “Do the job you need to do; you will have that relationship” eventually, she said.

Meanwhile, at Pond Cove, high school students from the Hyde School and about 25 Cape Elizabeth High School juniors and seniors had led discussions with third-graders about learning to be themselves.

When they all came together, parents spoke first, stepping forward out of the crowd to tell students what they had learned, including the importance of attitude when approaching a challenge; letting their kids try difficult things without automatically jumping in to take over; and having families agree on principles they all work toward.

One parent said she had learned that “it’s more important to do the right thing, even if it’s the hard thing.”

The students, for their part, spoke about their private feelings and the public face they put forward; what they want to be when they grow up; and what principles they stand for. They participated in skits demonstrating ways to overcome stress and how to treat people better.

Parent Kelly Dell’Aquila, who is a social worker, pushed for the workshop to help kids deal with bullying behaviors in school. Pat Wright and Karen Niehoff, the Pond Cove guidance counselors, and Katie Lisa, the high school social worker, helped plan and coordinate the events.

Funding was provided by the Cape Coalition, the Pond Cove Parents Association, the DARE program and Oakhurst Dairy.

At the end of her session, Gauld quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Our chief want in life is someone who will make us do what we can.”

Chinese teacher comes to Pond Cove

Published in the Current

A Chinese teacher, Wu Shumei, better known as “Mei,” will be visiting Pond Cove School for the rest of the academic year, sharing Chinese culture with the school’s students, as well as children at the town’s other schools.

At a welcoming party, Mei spoke with neighbors, kids, parents and friends about her school in China and her family, as well as her time in Maine. She is from Jiangxi province, in southeastern China, and teaches high school English at Linchuan High School Number 2.

She is working with the allied arts team at Pond Cove, bringing Chinese arts to the elementary school classrooms, and will also teach Tai Chi and other aspects of Chinese culture to high school students. Mei’s mentor teacher is Shari Robinson, the school’s librarian and media center supervisor.

She has also helped the South Portland Branch Library with its Chinese New Year festivities.

“I hope I will do a good job,” Mei said. She is excited about meeting the students and the teachers, and hopes to learn about American educational practices, as well as perfect her English. The Pond Cove team is very excited to have her – a number of teachers told the Current how great it is to have Mei there.

She is on an American Field Service program and has already visited a school in Readfield for several months.

She is staying with the Belden family, and is helping them teach their daughter Lydia about her heritage. The Beldens adopted Lydia from the Jiangxi region of China several years ago, and learned from Mei that her original Chinese name is that of a village near where Mei lives.

Piano Man coming to town?

Published in the Current

Rumors abound that Billy Joel has bought a house in Cape Elizabeth, but it appears to be just a lark.

“As far as I know, Billy Joel has not bought a house in Maine,” his publicist, Claire Mercuri of Columbia Records, told the Current.

The rumor has found its way to the schools, Town Hall, the police station, homes all over town and even the Sugarloaf ski area. But there is no record of any such deal in the property transfer records in the town assessor’s office (current through Dec. 31), or at the county’s registry of deeds (including deeds filed as recently as Feb. 7).

Police have not received any requests to keep an eye on any property that might be owned by the singer, according to Capt. Brent Sinclair.

Several houses are rumored to be the one Joel has purchased, including one for sale in Delano Park and two on Shore Road.

Frank Strout of Shore Road said the house next door to his was taken off the market several weeks ago, but he doesn’t know whether the house has been sold, or who the new neighbors might be.

“As long as he doesn’t play his piano too loud, I don’t mind,” Strout said of the prospect of Billy Joel living next door.

Parents talk circles around teen drinking

Published in the Current

Cape Superintendent Tom Forcella told about 70 people crowded into the Town Council chambers Feb. 6 to discuss teens, alcohol abuse and school policies that in terms of teen drinking Cape is “the most accepting” community he has seen and the culture needs to change.

The forum, hosted by the Cape Coalition, was entitled “Contracts and Consequences,” a subject of widespread community discussion in the wake of the suspensions of a basketball star and hockey player from their teams following a huge party at Sugarloaf over New Year’s.

“We wanted to try to provide a forum” for discussing in a larger group what is already being talked about in small groups around town, Coalition co-chairman Terry Johnson said. He wanted people to “start to agree on a fair and consistent message” to send teens about drinking, but that did not emerge from the meeting.

Parents and teens were present in droves, and high school Principal Jeff Shedd was there, as was Superintendent Forcella and School Board member
Kevin Sweeney.

Policy, problem not new
Parents began the discussion by saying they are concerned about preventing a teen-drinking tragedy, but want to have an environment in town and in school where kids could learn from their mistakes, rather than suffer severe consequences on the first or second offense.

A School Board policy that took effect at the beginning of this school year requires student-athletes and their parents to sign a contract saying they have read the rules and agree to abide by them. The consequences of drinking are laid out on paper, with a first offense punishable either by suspension from two games (if a student or the student’s parents tell school officials about the infraction) or for the remainder of the season (if the school finds out about it another way). A second offense results in suspension from all athletic
teams for the remainder of the year.

Shedd announced in December that the rules would be enforced equally for all students involved in extracurricular and co-curricular activities, rather than just for athletes.

Further, students who host parties where drinking occurs, and who do not take steps to break them up (by calling police or parents), could also be in trouble.

Parents and teens alike said the contract had previously been seen as “a joke” and not enforced. Specifically, star athletes’ transgressions had been “winked at,” one adult said. The new enforcement of the rules does not make Shedd popular with students, some of whom expressed concern about how the rules were communicated to them.

Many parents said athletes don’t read the contract before signing, though no student said that was the case. Students did say that increasing coach and team involvement in following the contract would help them do better at it, though several students in the room said they did not drink.

Parents go to bat for teens
A number of parents were concerned that taking away athletics – seen by school officials as a privilege – would put teens more at risk than allowing them to “work their way back” onto a team or activity.

Many parents said the school’s role in this is too big, but Sweeney said the School Board was responding to parents’ demands. Each time something happened with teens and drinking, parents came to the School Board demanding to know what the schools were going to do about it, he said.

As a result, the School Board has supported outdoor education programs in the middle school, DARE programs and this policy, he said.

One parent suggested the school step back and let parents enforce household rules when drinking occurs outside of school events.

Another said the policy makes school officials “policemen” when really they are educators. And, he said, the policy isn’t fixing the problem.

One parent suggested alcohol violations be treated similarly to academic probation, in which a student who is failing a class must come up with a way to bring his or her grades up, and is checked regularly on progress, but is allowed to play sports while working on the problem.

One parent said drinking is different because it is against the law, and allowing kids to get away with drinking is letting them go down a slippery slope to lawbreaking.

Another said parents aren’t enforcing the policy, the law or any other rules. At least 25 kids party “every weekend,” one said. Parents also typically do not show up to Cape Coalition meetings to discuss the issue, according to coalition organizer Liz Weaver. By contrast, students are often at coalition meetings.

Reality vs. myth: True West burns through the curtain

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Sam Shepard doesn’t waste any time. A comfortable 1980s-style kitchen becomes, in the opening minutes of True West, a scene of brotherly discord, soaring hopes, dashed dreams, and sobering reality. Like the flaring of the opening match, the play starts suddenly and grows in intensity until it burns fully by the end, the hot flames of paper in a trash can literally wafting smoke through a packed theater. And when the flames go out, the darkness is just as sudden — no more comforting for the light not shed upon the disturbing substance of the story.

Two brothers, an Ivy League grad struggling to make it as a Hollywood screenwriter without ever having really “lived” and a small-time burglar who has tasted the blood and marrow of life but can’t articulate it, face off in their mother’s kitchen, while she escapes on a trip to Alaska.

The Ivy Leaguer, Austin (played by Todd Cerveris) and the thief, Lee (Don Harvey) clash awkwardly, as family members with a shared past but no way to relate in the present. In Lee’s words, he is a desert coyote, howling mournfully and terrifyingly all night long, while Austin is a city coyote yapping fruitlessly at the darkness.

The complexity of the characters is intense, and to watch the two establish their dynamic on stage is to be drawn into a tense cycle of violence and silence. “Lee’s like a tiger. He’s like a tiger who’s hungry,” Harvey says of his role: He has to be ready to pounce at any moment, but when the tiger smiles, it is possible for a brief moment to see a heart behind the teeth.

Shepard’s play takes on the cultural mythology of the West and rips it open, disclosing, cringing in the stage lights, tiny humans inside monstrous beings, pulling the controls like Pinky and the Brain inside large humanoid robots. It is a masterful play, rich with the juice of reality and glistening with the slick sheen of falsehood.

“Once it gets you into that world, it then begins to twist,” Harvey says.

He and Cerveris know this well — each has performed Shepard roles. Each also knows, from experience in film and television, that the sunny surf of Hollywood has a powerful undertow.

The two swap roles in True West — almost — as a man with whom Austin was hoping to start a project offers Lee a large screenplay deal. But now they need each other more, Lee at the typewriter and Austin drunk, singing, on the floor. They play off each other well, though Cerveris could stand to go drinking for real a few times — his lines are delivered far too clearly to be the insights of a real bumbling drunk, and he moves more like an old man looking for dentures than a person who will suck down the hair of the dog in the morning.

As Lee’s developing story becomes a chase scene, the drama of this Western–style play becomes increasingly tense. The rages, the double-dealing, and the no-good-dirty-scoundrel behaviors really begin.

The tension is challenging, and Harvey admits it is easier to perform the play than to rehearse it. Rather than stopping and starting to make small changes, the energy in a full performance can flow through the actors, allowing them to handle the randomness of 20 pieces of toast popping through several minutes, as well as the unusually challenging element of timing a champagne cork to go off just as the scene goes dark.

(It popped far too soon during the show I saw, and the actors grinned at each other, waiting to see who would cover it first. The moment allowed the real power of the actors to shine through — they were deep in character and immediately handled the situation as each character would have, though it raised the question of what would have happened in real life, whether the laughter would have taken over and the moment dissolved in shared experience.)

But the twists continue, tying the brothers into immobility. The mother (Barbara Mather) comes home early from her trip, because she missed her beloved plants, now dead because the brothers neglected everything but themselves, turning the kitchen into a wreck and never bothering to cover the evidence of their harsh reality, splayed out on the floor. Mom, clearly used to getting through chaos by diverting her attention, begins to prattle about insignificant nothings, unable to deal with the causes and certain outcome of her sons’ struggles for life.

True West

By Sam Shepard, directed by Paul Mullins. With Todd Cerveris, Don Harvey, Ron Botting and Barbara Mather. At Portland Stage Company through Feb. 23. Call (207) 774-0465.

Life behind the badge

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Gary and I almost had him. The cop was just about pinned on the ground, with Gary on his arms and upper body and me holding his legs. But then he broke free, and we had to pile back on top of him, grabbing whatever we could. A small crowd watched us, as did two police officers.

I lifted the cop a bit and rolled him onto his side, but he got away again. Over and over, we tried to pin him down, but he fought us off with his feet and hands, and by squirming away at just the right time. I didn’t think we’d ever get him to stop resisting. It was as if we were fighting for our lives, and I couldn’t keep a hold on him for long.

Then the timer went off. Our two minutes were over. Gary and I got up, shook hands with the cop and sat back down with the rest of the class. Rather than being tackled by a whole raft of police officers, trundled into a waiting squad car, and locked up in the Cumberland County Jail for the night, Gary and I went home that evening, having learned from experience how hard it is to wrestle on the ground with someone who doesn’t want to be pinned down.

Gary and I — and about 15 other Portland residents — were students in the Portland Police Department’s Civilian Police Academy (see ÒPolice Business,Ó July 27, 2001, by Noah Bruce), which had its final class and graduation January 29. (Another class series is expected to start in the fall, for those who missed this one.)

We started the 11-week class back at the end of October, meeting for two hours each Wednesday night with Portland police officers and others involved in the public safety community. Not passive listeners, my classmates and I jumped onto the mat and wrestled with the hard reality of life behind the badge.

The intent of the class was to get us to help the Portland police fix some of their public-relations problems. The very first handout we received told us we were part of an effort to Òdevelop positive relationsÓ between the Portland cops and the public, to teach regular citizens about how police work really is.

But the class became more than that — citizens questioned the police, cops expressed frustration at the selectivity of the Portland Press Herald, and a candid forum for discussions opened where a cavern of ignorance and misunderstanding had been before. We addressed current and past police encounters, whether our own or ones we had heard about or read about in the news, talking about the gory details of a murder scene or the petty whines of people who think they don’t deserve a ticket.

It couldn’t have been timed better. It just happened that during the time our class was running: two officers had excessive-force lawsuits filed against them for allegedly beating a handcuffed prisoner; a third officer was sued for pulling a woman out of her Old Port apartment window onto a fire escape; Jeffery ÒRussÓ Gorman went on trial and was convicted for the murder of Amy St. Laurent; an Olympia Sports employee was stabbed to death while chasing a suspected shoplifter; and Lt. Ted Ross was involved in an alcohol-related car accident while driving his unmarked police cruiser home from an open-bar party, hosted by Police Chief Michael Chitwood, and drinks at another bar with two senior police officers.

Also during the time span of the class, Portland officers made a large number of arrests for a wide variety of crimes, investigated several unattended deaths including some possibly related to methadone or other drug overdoses, dealt with homeless people on the streets and students in need at the city’s schools, conducted traffic stops — among the most dangerous ÒroutineÓ things police officers do — on a regular basis around the clock, and patrolled the streets of Portland to protect us all from potential wrongdoers.

All of these were on the table for discussion. Admittedly, the police spent more time on the planned curriculum than on Òbreaking news,Ó but as relevant events occurred, either officers or class members used them as examples in discussion.

Open to the public

The openness in the classroom was refreshing and, frankly, surprising. I am a resident of Portland and work as a reporter for the Current and American Journal newspapers in the southern and western suburbs of the city. In my limited dealings with Portland cops as a private citizen, I had found the two or three I had met to be pleasant men (I hadn’t met any women on the force before the class) who were interested in helping me. And they were professional police officers, keeping their physical distance in case I turned out to be a bit of a loony who secretly wanted to hurt them, and keeping their emotional distance, too, while I described my version of events.

In my professional capacity, I had learned from experience that even when Chief Chitwood had something to say, it is still not easy to get to speak with him. (He usually ended up making time for me after I camped out in his assistant’s office or called hourly to leave messages.) Indeed, neither Chitwood nor his deputy chiefs ever appeared before our class, not even at our Ògraduation.Ó Chitwood left his officers to assure us that he really wanted the department to be open to public scrutiny and that he supported the idea of the class. He never took even a moment to thank the class members or its teachers for doing his job: openly showing the people how the police conduct their business.

Most police chiefs in the area, and most officers and detectives, are easier to get in touch with and offer more information more readily, including detailed police logs with information on what happened where and when, which Portland does not issue. (You’ll never read about them in the Press Herald, because their reporters don’t ask for the logs, I was told. So far, since the closing of the old CBW, I am the only person to ask for — or receive — a list of people arrested by the Portland Police Department.)

And every chief I know would jump at the chance to talk to a group of 20 people interested in police work, especially if the group had volunteered two hours a week to meet just down the hall from the chief’s office. All would have taken the time to stop in and tell us what they do. Chitwood couldn’t face us, but kudos to the officers who did, carrying on valiantly despite an absentee chief.

I was curious what would happen when regular Portland police officers were put in front of a group of people and asked to explain what they do and how and why they do it. I feared they might clam up and deliver a prepared script before leaving the room, but hoped they would really engage us in a discussion about police work — which they did.

The inside scoop

We got candid, inside views of police work, from detectives, evidence technicians and patrol officers. After the Gorman trial concluded, we learned from Sgt. Dan Young, the class organizer and lead detective investigating Amy St. Laurent’s death, how police located Eric Rubright, the friend who was visiting Amy from Florida and went to the Pavilion with her, only to lose track of her later: Police got the records of Rubright’s rental car from the jetport and put out a radio call for officers to look for the car, found later parked in the Old Port.

Young and a colleague drove there in an unmarked car and parked right behind Rubright’s car, he told us. And as they were discussing which bar to start looking in, a young man came up and knocked on the window. He wanted them to back up a bit so he could get out of his parking space. It was Rubright.

While this particular story has no bearing on the Gorman case or its outcome, it is this type of inside view that improves trust between the public and the police. Openness is the key to confidence. And just like many other ethical issues, it is not the facts of a situation but the appearances that matter most.

The police officers who spoke to our class were honest and open about the work they do and its opportunities and challenges. They did not hide from reality; they could not do so, as they live it daily. It is this openness that the department should encourage at all times, not just in a safe group of 20 prescreened students sitting in a room inside the police station. (We had to agree to criminal background checks before being accepted into the class. As Young said, ÒWe’re not here to teach crooks how to work the system.Ó)

Officers spoke about the problems the department has had with staffing lately: Now down 17 officers and required to assign 11 exclusively to the jetport, patrol numbers and particularly community policing resources are stretched beyond the limit.

But they sunk our teeth into meatier issues: There is heroin in our schools, School Resource Officer Janelle Dunn told us flatly. ÒKids are starting drugs at age 10 now,Ó and parents regularly smoke pot with their kids, leading her to consider drug testing for all athletes.

Dunn also told us seven kids have been expelled from Deering in the last two years, all for either dealing drugs on campus or assaulting people on school grounds. She painted with a detailed brush the issues facing our teenagers, and the support they need but so often don’t find at home. I had to wonder why we hadn’t read about these issues in the local daily newspaper, or heard about them on television.

We asked Detective Bob Doherty, a Portland officer assigned to the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, about the types of drugs available on the street in Portland and where we could get them. He wouldn’t tell us where, but he said we could ask around and easily find marijuana, methadone, heroin, crack, cocaine, Ecstasy, and prescription opiates like Oxycontin all readily available in our city, despite the best efforts of police. He hasn’t seen methamphetamine or crystal meth yet, though those drugs are ripping apart the social fabric of the rural Midwest.

Sgt. Scot Mattox told us about OUI enforcement, including that officers must have articulable reasons for making traffic stops, but Òare encouraged to [do so] when they can.Ó Officers know how to detect drivers’ impairments from all kinds substances, and are experts at it, Mattox told us, not knowing he was foreshadowing accusations to the contrary, after Lt. Ted Ross was involved in an accident, which even he admitted was alcohol-related, but was not booked for OUI.

We learned from Officer Michelle Cole and K-9 Karla that the department has a bomb dog it can use to search buildings after bomb threats. But the schools, Cole told us, are so reluctant to have students miss class or stand outside in cold weather that they won’t bother with a search by the best tool we have, a dog’s nose. Instead, they’ll risk the lives of Portland’s kids to make sure they all get another 30 minutes of algebra.

We learned from Detective Scott Dunham how hard it is to talk to a child victim of a sex crime, when some kids — depending on their age — are embarrassed about what happened and ashamed to talk about it.

Dunham’s quiet manner made him seem a bit awkward when teaching a class, but surely is a strength when he is speaking to kids about what Daddy or Uncle (or Aunt) did, as well as when he is gently asking potential pedophiles to spill the details of the heinous act. ÒIf they can’t tell me, there’s no way they’re going to reveal what happened in a courtroom,Ó Dunham said.

Dunham’s chief tactic is minimizing the seriousness of the incident, even though the interrogation is often part of a felony investigation. ÒI’m going to try and trick him. I can do that because the Supreme Court says I can,Ó he told us. Some of the offenders he has interviewed have thanked him at the end of the session, for helping them talk about what happened. No doubt they didn’t thank him as they were carted away to jail.

And after they get out, they get ample chance to thank Dunham again when he sees them in his role as administrator of sex-offender registration. There are between 50 and 80 sex offenders in Portland, and the police department keeps a book of them for public review, Dunham said.

Force and too much force

By far the most interesting conversation was about use of control or use of force by officers, led by Michael Cunniff, a 27-year veteran of federal law-enforcement agencies who is now an attorney — often defending police officers accused of wrongdoing, including excessive use of force.

The stage had been set early in the class, when two police officers came in to show us how difficult it actually is to physically arrest someone who doesn’t want to be handcuffed. Though police officers often have superior strength, their strength is handicapped a bit by all the stuff they have to drag around: gun, ammunition, handcuffs, radio, pepper spray, and more. Dragging all that to the bathroom is tiring, much less running after a bad guy who doesn’t want to be caught. And once officers are lucky enough to catch up to the suspect, they still have to make sure the guy can’t grab a gun out of an officer’s holster.

As Gary and I learned by wrestling a cop, even two-on-one in a friendly sort of way is really difficult, not to mention our play-fighting rules: no punching, and stop when you get too close to the edge of the mat. Sounds like a pansy fight, compared to what we could have been up against — a herd of cops with hard knees and elbows, trying to pin our asses to the pavement.

We learned from officers Ed Leadbetter and Kevin Cashman that officers can’t just jump on people for no reason. Laws and courts have set out measured levels of escalation of force, from an officer just being present, through to voice commands, physical control and restraint, chemical agents, temporary incapacitation, and finally to deadly force. To stay within the law and still come home in one piece, officers must move fluidly among these levels, depending on whether a woman really does want help finding her dog, or turns out to be an escaped felon in disguise.

Cunniff talked us through a short scenario to demonstrate the challenges of this. We were working the night shift out of Dragnet. The whole class was there, in a single patrol car and in the body of one lonely officer, checking businesses on the late shift. It was midnight as we pulled through a K-mart parking lot. We spotted a man standing next to a window, and then noticed the window was broken.

As each stage of the scenario unfolded, people in the class wanted to do more, to use more force, than Cunniff said we were allowed to use. As our imaginary suspect walked away with his hand in his coat, several of us would have killed him. Most of the rest would have jumped him. I was truly glad we weren’t handed badges and guns and sent out to patrol the streets. Police officers get training in how to do this, not only safely but legally. We didn’t bother with either safety or legality, jumping in like hotheads, thinking we were protecting ourselves when really we were making sure we lived to stand trial in the morning.

Even sitting safely in chairs in the police station gym, it was scary to play the role of police officer faced with hundreds of split-second decisions, standing in a parking lot at night. We wanted to protect ourselves from whomever this guy was. Maybe he was walking his dog like he said, or maybe he was a lookout for the guy inside the store carting off televisions. We still don’t know.

The point Cunniff made well was that officers have a huge responsibility and do it right more often than not. But they are human and want to go home in one piece at the end of their shifts. They can be nervous, but only rarely don’t do it right.

For that matter, when it had been our turn several weeks before, we hadn’t done so well either. Each member of the class got to try out making those decisions, taking turns at a simulated shooting range in the basement of the Federal Courthouse in Portland. Faced with filmed scenarios, we had to decide when to shoot, or if we should shoot at all. It was rough.

Many of us shot too soon, before there was a real threat to our safety, opening the door to a big lawsuit. A surprising number of us missed even when we did pull the trigger. It was fun, but as we exited the shooting room in pairs, the glee of firing powerful handguns (with electronic triggers and no kick-back) faded in the murky basement atmosphere. As those who hadn’t gone in yet asked for tips about what to look for when they entered the Room of Certain Death, we who had been shot dead moments before by video suspects came to realize the grave danger wearing the badge brings.

Cunniff reminded us that we need to look at context, something often missing in the local daily. Of 70,000 calls for Portland police service last year, there were only 82 complaints. About 50 of those, Cunniff said, were filed by officers against each other, usually as a result of some type of internal incident review.

Not all involved allegations of excessive use of force, either: Some were because an officer didn’t show up in court to testify about a speeding ticket when he was supposed to, or broke some other department guideline designed to keep order in the group charged with keeping order in the city. Complaints also do not indicate misconduct occurred. Instead, they trigger an internal investigation to determine if an officer did anything wrong.

Most complaints from the public develop in a Òrelatively minor situation where the officer is trying to be cautious,Ó Cunniff said. Just like the K-mart parking lot in our scenario, nervous cops do sometimes get carried away. If they do use force, they have the sure and swift retribution of paperwork. After every encounter in which they did more than give voice commands, Portland officers have to file an internal report, which is then reviewed by supervisors and internal affairs for possible wrongdoing. If any is found, a complaint is filed, even before a member of the public calls in with a bruise or a broken bone.

Cunniff and Young reminded us that officers are human beings and can make mistakes, even if they are polygraphed and submit to background checks and psychological exams before even being hired, and are regularly re-screened before promotions.

It was the case Chitwood should be making, but never does: Some Portland officers make mistakes, but not many. Most officers do their jobs well, and work hard to do the right thing by everyone involved, from victim to suspect. But they are human, and we should expect some errors from time to time. We should also expect the department to make amends.

Instead, Chitwood supports accused officers blindly, even when they are wrong, or before he knows if they are. He puts egg on his face and the face of every officer when he opens his mouth without knowing the facts. He should wait until he knows the full story, and then give it to us completely, opening the police department to public scrutiny, to earn back lost public confidence. He should give every citizen of Portland a chance to see the inside of the department the way our class did, to understand, to ask questions, and to get honest, complete answers.

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Local sons and daughters off to war

Published in the Current and the American Journal; co-written with Brendan Moran and Robert Lowell

As war drums beat louder, many local servicemen and women already are on the move, getting ready to fight a war with Iraq. They leave behind families who anxiously watch the news and hope for their safe return.

Tyler Dunphy, the Westbrook school department’s network administrator, went on active duty two weeks ago, after being in the Army Reserves for the last two years. Dunphy said he was reluctant to leave behind his wife, who is pregnant with their first child.

“I don’t want to leave my wife with her baby,” said Dunphy. “I don’t want to leave my job. But this is a volunteer army, and I volunteered. So I go willingly.”

“I’m so proud of him,” Nancy Dunphy said of her husband. “I also know he’s proud to serve his country.”

The Westbrook school department threw a going away party for Dunphy the week before he left. Dunphy will return to his position in Westbrook after a year of active duty. He will keep tabs on school computers while he’s gone with his laptop and cell phone.

U.S. Marine Capt. John Ginn is on his way to the Middle East on an amphibious assault ship, the U.S.S. Saipan. Ginn, a helicopter pilot stationed at New River, N.C., flies AH-1W SuperCobra attack helicopters in support of combat troops on the ground and left Jan. 14.

“He seems to be doing very well,” said his father, Gregg Ginn of Cape Elizabeth. John has been training for this for several years. “He’s where John Ginn should be,” his father said.

John’s wife Jenn is well “under the circumstances,” Gregg said. “This is obviously one of those situations that nothing prepares you for.”

Gregg is also doing well. “Worrying wouldn’t help me very much,” he said. He remains concerned for his son’s safety. “He’s constantly on our minds and in our prayers,” Gregg said.

Gregg said he has received several messages from his son, and the mood aboard ship is one of readiness. “They’re prepared to do what’s necessary,” he said.

Navy Petty Officer Second Class Dylan S. Paige told his mother he is too. The son of Susan and Rick Paige of Windham, Paige is a crewmember of the aircraft carrier USS Truman. A Navy report said the carrier was in the Adriatic Sea last week. Sue hears from Dylan by e-mail and she told the American Journal Tuesday that he’s busy, “working 12 to 14 hours a day.”

She thought that he was tired and overworked, and he might have had a three-day leave. She said that her son is taking college courses aboard ship.

Susan said that Dylan is a fire control technician, working with computers in the missile system on the $4.5 billion ship. Although Susan said Dylan couldn’t talk about it, she said, “They’re prepared for war. They’re ready.”

“Of course I’m worried,” she said, but she added, “He feels safe.”

Dylan told his mother not to worry. But Susan, who had family in World War II and an ex-husband in Vietnam, added that she hated war. She thinks that President Bush wants it.

Susan and Richard saw the Truman in action last year when they went on an all-day cruise out of Norfolk, Va., the Truman’s homeport.

Kendra Curran of Windham, Dylan’s sister, said that her brother had reenlisted.

Dylan, who was married last spring, is serving aboard the Truman with his wife Jennifer’s stepfather. (See her letter on Page 8.)

The nuclear-powered Truman is armed with Sea Sparrow missiles, a Phalanx close-in weapons system and carries about 85 warplanes.

Jessi Matthews of Westbrook, the 19-year-old daughter of Carol and Richard Matthews, found out Monday she would be called up to active duty in the Army reserves.

Matthews, a member of the 934th Quartermaster Company, leaves Wednesday for a base in Connecticut.

“Of course, I’m nervous about it,” said Carol Matthews, who works at Fruiti’s Deli in downtown Westbrook. “But I’m trying to look at it as an adventure.”

Some local residents are actually in combat now, rather than just on the way to a possible fight. Cpl. Brendan Sweeney is in the 82nd Airborne Division and is now in Afghanistan. He stopped quickly in Kandahar, according to his father, Kevin Sweeney, and is now at what the military calls “a forward operating position.”

“We’re worried about him, of course,” Kevin said. Brendan does manage to call his wife fairly frequently, “even though he’s in the boonies,” Kevin said.

“We have no idea where he is,” but he expects that Brendan is up in the mountains. When Kevin heard from Brendan recently, “he seemed pretty good.”

Apparently Brendan claims to have “gained 100 pounds” with all his gear on, including an M4 rifle, a 9 mm pistol, a mortar tube, seven mortar rounds and hundreds of rounds of gun ammunition. He also wears body armor plates, which add still more weight.

“It’s a real war – they’re shooting,” Kevin said. He and his wife are doing well, though they are worried about their son. “Of course we miss the hell out of him,” Kevin said, his eyes starting to fill with tears.

Thursday, February 6, 2003

Juba-lation: Documents come alive at the Players’ Ring

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Historians know that books and archival papers are not dusty remnants of the past but living documents, eager to tell and show what they know of the worlds that created them. Rarely, though, has a playwright made historic words so literally come alive as in Juba, in which several members of the cast actually play 19th-century documents, giving life to lines written long ago.

The play is set in two places: a library and the mind of a historian (Fred Blader), who is searching for the truth about the life of a man who shaped the world of dance so radically that we take his influence for granted. William Henry Lane, known to the world as Juba, was the first African-American dancer to perform in the white minstrel shows of pre–Civil War America, and is credited with popularizing the style that became tap dancing.

Juba left no written evidence of himself, so we must rely on the words of those who observed him. The documents literally tell their stories, of Charles Dickens in New York City, of P.T. Barnum and the beginnings of his circus, and of other authors and their versions of Juba in the US and in England.

The play also becomes a commentary on the times and how little has changed between the 1840s and now. Back then, white minstrels painted themselves with blackface to both mock blacks and mimic their skills. Nowadays, even the Piscataqua Players performing at the Players’ Ring, known for experimental productions, cannot do this without fear of offending people. Instead, the actors use clear masks, but point directly at the audience when discussing racism, which still exists in New Hampshire, Maine, and everywhere.

The show glosses over an important blackface issue, though: The historical documents, at least those in the play, indicate that Juba’s first public appearance was actually in blackface. The minstrel shows were always all-white performances, and initially, it seems, putting a black man on stage to demonstrate his skill unmasked would have been unacceptable. Yet when Pierre R. Barreau comes on stage as Juba in his first performance, Barreau does not wear a mask.

A bit of directorial courage here would have demonstrated — beyond the power of all words — how humiliating it must have been for a black man to be masked to “fit in” precisely because he did not.

This play is not about race, however. Rather, it is about the challenges of drawing a picture of a man from the historical record. Large gaps in knowledge remain, including the manner of Juba’s death and the disposition of his remains. Documents can tell us much, but not everything.

The historian’s mind is hard at work assembling the pieces, and Blader is, too, though he spends almost the entire play seated at a desk. Acting behind a piece of furniture is difficult, but Blader’s expansive voice and gestures, as well as the depth of his facial expression, make up for the constraints laid on him by the set.

Some of the oddities of the play are evinced by the writing, which leaves unanswered a number of questions both historical and not, and which interjects two singing interludes for no apparent reason, though they are well voiced in this production.

The costumes are elegant and off-beat, especially for the documents, who wear 19th-century formalwear accented by lapels and bow-ties made of paper covered with printed words. However, the tiny costume differences intended to signal the multiple roles of Susan Turner (assistant librarian, Susan Bristol, and NYC Guide) make her arrival on stage confusing, as neither her voice nor demeanor changes much between the parts.

Some of the dialogue is obscured by being in an ill-moderated counterpoint, and some of the activity was missed in the performance I saw because of distracting fidgeting by cast members on stage but not involved in the scene. And in one group song, Turner had to work overtime, leaning back and forth to keep the men sitting on either side of her in tune.

Also, while most of the actors are not professionals, one flubbed line in last weekend’s performance couldn’t be ignored and in fact left me wondering what really happened to Juba. A date was misspoken, moving Juba’s death 24 years into the future, with later corrected lines giving the right year. Not until I was driving home did I figure out that the line was blown and not the history.

Particular performers are worth noting. Chris Rowse, in the part of Briggs, nailed all of his lines, and despite some obvious jitters from time to time, did very well on stage. And Barreau’s dancing is great. Though it’s more along the lines of traditional modern dance than a precursor of tap, Barreau should be credited with being the only black man in the show, the only character who did not speak, and the unmasked star of the show, just as Juba must have been. Further, Barreau managed something Juba never had to try: He avoided colliding with the very low Players’ Ring ceiling.


By Stephen Johnson with additional dialogue by Ron Ames, directed by Peggi McCarthy. With Fred Blader, Sandi Clark, Danny Gerstein, Peter Michaud, and Pierre R. Barreau. Piscataqua Players at the Players’ Ring, Portsmouth, NH, through Feb. 9. Call (603) 436-8123.

Wednesday, February 5, 2003

Armed robbery spree in S.P.

Published in the Current and the American Journal

South Portland police are looking for three separate suspects in connection with a recent spate of armed robberies at businesses in the city.

The first was Tuesday, Jan. 28, at 8:30 p.m., at the Sheraton Tara Hotel at 363 Maine Mall Road. A white male went to the front desk, told the clerk he had a gun and asked for money. The clerk wasn’t able to open the safe, so the man left, according to South Portland Detective Sgt. Edward Sawyer.

The man was about 5 feet, 10 inches tall, about 180 pounds, with a green winter stocking mask pulled over his face and a blue jacket with a tan collar.

Then on Feb. 3, at 1:51 a.m., a black male went into the Irving station at 474 Westbrook St., showed a knife and demanded money. The clerk gave the man money, and the robber left.

That man was described as about 20 years old, 5 feet, 9 inches tall, about 150 pounds, with a dark winter hat, black leather coat, carpenter- style jeans, a blue bandanna on his head and white gloves.

And shortly after 1 a.m., Feb. 4, a white male entered the Best Western at 700 Main St., “displayed a handgun and demanded money,” Sawyer said. That man got away with money as well. The suspect was described as in his mid- to late-20s, about 5 feet, 9 or 10 inches tall, 140 to 150 pounds, with strawberry blond eyebrows, pale blue eyes and pale skin, with no scars or facial hair, wearing a full-length black trench coat, a black knit hat, a black scarf, black gloves and blue jeans.

“It’s difficult to say at this point whether they’re related,” Sawyer said. Police continue to look for the suspects.

They are also “comparing notes” with Portland police, who are investigating two armed robberies between 9:30 and 10 p.m., Feb. 2, according to Detective Reed Barker. One was at Wild Oats on Marginal Way and the other was at the McDonald’s restaurant on St. John Street. The suspects in those incidents have similar descriptions to each other and to the suspect at the Best Western robbery Feb. 4.

Locals sue Portland chief over accident

Published in the Current and the American Journal

Kimberly McLellan of Gorham and Kevin Hardy of Scarborough are planning to sue Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood under the state’s Liquor Liability Act after the vehicles they were in were involved in an accident caused by an allegedly drunk police officer.

They will also sue the City of Portland and the Portland Police Department.

Lawyers for the two will file notices of claim this week. Hardy and McLellan were the drivers and only occupants of the other two vehicles involved in a three-car crash at about 10 p.m. Dec. 17. Lt. Ted Ross, a Portland officer who lives in Cape Elizabeth, was driving home from an open-bar holiday party hosted by Chitwood, and a subsequent stop at a Portland bar with two other senior police officers, when he hit a truck
driven by Hardy, pushing Hardy’s truck into McLellan’s Land Rover.

Ross was not arrested for driving under the influence at the time, but rather was transported to the hospital for treatment of a head injury received in the crash.

A search warrant served on Maine Medical Center Jan. 27 indicated that Ross’ blood alcohol level at the time of his admission to the hospital was 0.253 percent, more than three times the legal limit. The district attorney’s office announced last week it was seeking charges against Ross, but none had been filed as of Tuesday, when it transferred the case to the state attorney general’s office for further action.

Ross’ attorney, Michael Cunniff, said Ross had not yet been charged, and he will ask the attorney general “to make a decision as quickly as possible.”

Assistant Attorney General William Stokes said he had received and accepted the case, and would review it to determine “what charges if any may be filed.”

Cunniff questioned the usefulness and validity of the hospital’s diagnostic blood test for law enforcement purposes and said officers did not have reason to suspect Ross was drunk following the accident.

“Because there was no evidence of alcohol impairment, the officers would have released anyone” who was in the position Ross found himself in Dec. 17, Cunniff said.

Mark Randall, an attorney with the Daniel G. Lilley Law Offices in Portland, the firm handling the case against the police department, said filing a notice of claim gives McLellan and Hardy two years from the date of the accident to file a lawsuit.

The specifics of the lawsuit are not yet determined, Randall said. An investigation is ongoing, which includes looking into whether Ross has any past history of incidents like this one, and how police handled those, Randall said.

He said he expects the city and police department parts of the suit to relate to Ross’s conduct while operating a city-owned vehicle, the unmarked police cruiser assigned to him at the time of the incident.

According to court documents, Ross initially told police and rescue workers that he was reaching for a cell phone. Use of cell phones while driving city vehicles is prohibited by city policy. Ross also told emergency workers he was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident.

Cunniff said Ross admitted to wearing a seat belt and attempting to use his cellphone, and said Ross may have violated city policies.

Randall expects the liquor liability portion of the suit to name people who served alcohol to Ross, “including Michael Chitwood.”

Randall said Hardy and McLellan are not speaking to the media now, but Randall did remark upon their “amazement” that police officers and rescue workers at the scene “did not even talk to them prior to Ross being placed in an ambulance and being removed.”

Hardy and McLellan refused ambulance transport to a hospital, but both were taken by friends to Portland emergency rooms that evening and were treated and released, according to Randall.

Both are “undergoing medical treatment” to determine the extent of their injuries. Neither has been hospitalized.

Randall dismissed public claims by, among others, District Attorney Stephanie Anderson, that blood could mask the smell of alcohol.

Court documents indicate that Ross was “bleeding profusely” from a forehead wound caused when he hit his head on the rear-view mirror.

The idea that blood could have covered up the smell of alcohol is “fanciful,” Randall said. Officers often tell investigators that they can smell alcohol at some distance from a car. “They can smell alcohol in the most unusual circumstances,” Randall said.

Randall said the officers should not have ignored the smell of alcohol he is sure was present at the accident scene. “I’ve heard of selective hearing. This is the first time I’ve ever heard of selective smelling,” he said.

Cunniff said the evidence from the Portland police investigation, including more than 20 interviews, some of which were cited in court documents, indicates “the people who were on the scene did not detect any evidence of alcohol.” Further, “he wasn’t impaired.”

Ross is on paid administrative leave, the usual status assigned to officers who are under investigation, Cunniff said. Chitwood and Portland City Attorney Gary Wood did not return phone calls by press time.