Helena commission holds discussion ahead of school resource officer vote

Posted at 12:12 AM, Jul 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-24 02:12:28-04

The Helena City Commission held a preliminary discussion Thursday evening, before making a decision next week on whether to continue the School Resource Officer program.

The commission has temporarily delayed $292,000 from the Helena Police Department budget while they consider whether to remove four armed officers from Helena Public Schools campuses. They are set to make a final decision at their regular meeting Monday evening.

Thursday’s work session was the commission’s first extensive discussion on the issue after they heard testimony at a public meeting July 9.

Commissioner Heather O’Loughlin, who has been one of the commission’s main advocates for ending the SRO contract, pointed to the testimony of former students who have reported negative interactions with officers. She said she believes the city needs to find a better model for providing services in the schools.

“The use of these resources is really important, and having a community conversation and a conversation with the district about what really is in the best interest of students,” said O’Loughlin.

Commissioner Emily Dean, a former teacher, said she had concerns about what the impact would be on Helena Public Schools if the city ended the SRO program so close to the start of the school year. She noted that she had once implemented a “restorative justice” program in her classroom, but it took three months to plan.

“I think that when we move forward, we can’t afford not to get this right,” Dean said. “We simply cannot afford not to.”

Commissioner Sean Logan said he felt the city was moving too fast in considering eliminating SROs, and that the community had not had enough opportunity to weigh in on the decision. He said he wanted to see a more comprehensive review before such a step was taken.

“This is simply not enough time, and not enough thoughtful public input on a matter as important and foundational to Helena as community policing,” he said. “Helena needs more time and deserves to have a thoughtful place at the table.”

O’Loughlin said she was willing to look at delaying the change to the SRO program, to give the school district more time to put together and implement a new plan. However, she said she wanted to see a decision made now, arguing a longer review process would be difficult for those who have come forward with their experiences with SROs.

“I certainly would be open to a suggestion from the body on what timing makes sense,” she said. “I continue to think that it would be important to say this existing structure will end at that date.”