The city of Helena is currently going through a public discussion process, as leaders consider the future of the Helena Police Department’s School Resource Officer program. The issue has drawn strong opinions from those who want to maintain officers on campus and those who want to redirect the funding to other services.
One dividing line for people on both sides of the debate has been whether they feel more secure having officers on campus or say that a law enforcement presence in schools creates a less welcoming environment.
Claire Bryan is one of those in favor of keeping the SROs. She said, in 2016, her daughter reported she was assaulted by a fellow student. She said a permanent non-contact order was put in place, but that school leaders told her they were limited in what they could do to keep the two apart.
Bryan said she was initially concerned about sending her daughter back to school, but that the presence of an SRO made her more comfortable with it.
“It was very nerve-wracking to have them attending school together for the next two years, but knowing that there was a school resource officer there who knew exactly who the two kids were and could monitor the situation was very reassuring,” she said.
Bryan said she also worked with SROs in her previous job as a child protection specialist. She believes some issues in schools will still have to be handled by law enforcement – and that having an officer on campus who can develop a relationship with students would be better than bringing in an officer without that background.
“I’m absolutely pro- getting more social workers, more counselors in the schools, I definitely think that could be beneficial to the students – but I also really feel like the school resource officer has a very special role that a social worker can’t do,” said Bryan.
However, not everyone in Helena schools has had the same reaction to SROs. During the city’s first public meeting on the issue on July 9, commissioners heard from several former students who reported negative interactions with the officers.
“I have never once sought out a school resource officer to help me solve a problem,” said Cole Read, a recent Helena High graduate. “A vast majority of the students that I knew who were sexually assaulted or experiencing other kinds of abuse were staunchly opposed to trying to ask any SRO for help.”
“Not once have I heard the tone change since I was in high school: Indigenous youth don’t find SROs helpful,” said Kelli Twoteeth, who graduated from Helena High and has taught classes there.
Ella Smith is the program director for Montana Women Vote, one of the advocacy groups that has supported ending the SRO program. She said many of the issues that officers are responding to could be handled better by counselors, social workers or other types of services. She also said many students, particularly Black and Indigenous students, have been penalized excessively.
“Our idea is that we would rather see funds go toward preventative measures that would allow people to have the support where they don’t necessarily have to be in those situations that they’re then being policed for,” said Smith.
The commission has temporarily delayed $292,000 in HPD funding until they determine whether to continue the SRO program. Commissioners are set to vote on the issue at their regular meeting Monday night.