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Helena Public Schools, advocates respond to school resource officer decision

Posted at 8:21 PM, Jul 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-29 10:28:56-04

During Monday night’s Helena City Commission meeting, commissioners decided not to take any immediate action to change the city’s School Resource Officer program.

Instead, they approved a motion to end the current SRO contract with Helena Public Schools after June 30, 2021. The city will work with the school district and other stakeholders on coming up with a new agreement, which could include changes to the SRO program or replace it altogether.

HPS leaders, including Superintendent Tyler Ream, had asked the commission not to eliminate SROs immediately, but they said they are willing to take part in looking at potential new models.

“I am thankful for having some additional time and the ability to go through what I believe will be a more thoughtful process,” said Ream.

Ream acknowledged one challenge going forward will be getting a full picture of how students feel about having officers in schools – especially those students who have had negative interactions with SROs.

“I think that’s part of having a group of stakeholders involved in this work, is we can try to consider who best to ask whom each question, so we really get a good, confident data set,” he said.

Ream said the discussions on a new agreement will likely be a “multi-month process.” He said they will probably begin after the start of the school year, to give the district time to finalize its plans for dealing with COVID-19. He said they will keep an open mind when considering what changes can be made going forward.

“In every entity, there’s an opportunity to improve,” said Ream. “There’s an opportunity to learn and an opportunity to grow, and we want to engage that.”

Opponents of SROs included advocacy groups like the ACLU of Montana, which have argued the officers have an unequal impact on Black and Indigenous students, and on those with disabilities. In a statement, advocacy and policy director SK Rossi called the commission’s decision “disappointing.”

“We know from data reported by school districts directly to the U.S. Department of Education that schools with regular police presence have higher rates of arrests, referrals to law enforcement, and out-of-school suspensions, disproportionately for Black, Indigenous and Latinx students and students with disabilities,” Rossi said. “Over the next year, the City of Helena, the Helena School District, and other stakeholders have the opportunity to put policies, practices, and resources in place that ensure that all students feel safe and are given equal opportunity to learn. Armed police in schools should not be part of that equation.”

Other groups supported continuing the SRO program. Samara Sant, the founder of 406 Back the Blue, said she believed SROs had been a generally positive presence in Helena schools. She said the Helena Police Department already has limited resources, and that it would be a mistake to redirect any police funding – now or during the upcoming discussions.

“We are certainly looking forward to many more robust conversations with the commission and the mayor moving forward, on how we can not only support but also bolster our local law enforcement community for a safer Helena, ultimately,” Sant said.