Jim Kenyon: Lebanon schools may be out of excuses to keep campus cop

Valley News Columnist
Published: 7/16/2022 10:02:44 PM
Modified: 7/16/2022 10:02:24 PM

Any hopes the Lebanon School Board had of this being a quiet, uneventful summer ended last week when the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire entered the fray over whether an armed cop should continue patrolling the hallways of city schools.

In a letter to the nine-member board, ACLU Legal Director Gilles Bissonnette challenged the board’s assertion that a citywide vote in March to “discontinue the School Resource Officer program” was nonbinding and advisory only. By a count of 811-650, 56% of voters supported the warrant article, which was on the ballot by petition.

Unlike in 2021, however, when a similar warrant article passed by just five votes, the March ballot contained no “non-binding” language, Bissonnette pointed out in his letter. (A sample 2022 ballot on the city’s website makes no mention of the vote being nonbinding.)

“If the Board believes that the votes of its constituents are non-binding, we request a formal, written explanation regarding the validity of this belief,” Bissonnette wrote. “At a minimum, the Board should vote on whether the warrant article should be ignored. Lebanon’s voters deserve this information in order to understand and evaluate the School Board’s position.”

On Friday, School Board Chairman Richard Milius told me the ACLU letter is now in the hands of the school district’s attorney at Drummond Woodsum, a northern New England firm. 

After the firm reviews the letter, its response will quickly be made public, Milius said. “It’s not just about us and the ACLU,” he said. “This is something that many people are interested in.”

If it turns out the ACLU is on firm legal ground, board members and others who think a police presence is needed to keep the peace in schools may not get their way for much longer.

Why’s that?

In April, the board voted, 5-4, to continue the position of school resource officer, better known as a SRO, until at least February 2024.

Renee DePalo, who was elected to the board in March, was among the most vocal supporters. But DePalo resigned in June, after moving out of the city.

Her replacement, Wendy Hall, becomes the likely swing vote. Hall, who previously served on the board for six years, including two as chairwoman, didn’t seek reelection in 2021.

Hall couldn’t be reached for comment on Friday.

Police reform and racial justice advocates have been trying for two years to eliminate the SRO position, which costs Lebanon taxpayers $120,000 a year. 

A group called Lebanon High School Students of Color Collective, which began meeting regularly in 2016 to talk about racial issues, joined the effort more than a year ago. In a 2021 letter to the board, the students wrote that they oppose the “concept of police playing an active daily role in our schools. Police officers are not trained to deal with students in trauma.”

The school district added a social worker for the upcoming school year. But if school officials thought that would appease SRO opponents, they were mistaken.

Earlier this month, Lebanon’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Commission asked the City Council to support discontinuing the SRO position “given racial and (dis)ability inequities that result from police presence in schools.”

The city and school district each put up $60,000 annually of taxpayers money to pay for the SRO.

But instead of supporting the commission, city councilors punted. “I think it would be outside our jurisdiction to make this recommendation,” Councilor Karen Liot Hill said at the July 6 meeting. “It’s not our job.”

Or put another way, not our problem.

Meanwhile, City Manager Shaun Mulholland is playing schoolyard bully. When asked at a School Board meeting in April what would happen if the SRO position was cut, Mulholland warned there’d be a price to pay.

Currently, the city is responsible for hiring, training and paying part-time school crossing guards. That would stop if the SRO position went away, Mulholland said, a savings of $28,000 a year to the city.

But Mulholland’s threats (I don’t know how else to describe them) didn’t end there. A board member asked if that also meant Lebanon police officers would no longer fill in for crossing guards when needed.

Yes, Mulholland replied. Finding substitute crossing guards would become the school district’s responsibility. “You’d have to use your organic staff to cover that,” he said.

City Councilor Devin Wilkie, who is the council’s representative on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Commission, said he was surprised to hear Mulholland bring the crossing guards into the SRO debate.

“I wasn’t sure why that was relevant,” Wilkie told me. “It’s not anything I’d heard in the more than two years that we’ve been discussing SRO funding.”

Mulholland’s stance isn’t surprising. Before switching over to municipal administration, he was a police chief.

For years, cops have been using scare tactics to drum up public support for allowing police with guns and arrest powers to set up shop in school buildings. (Lebanon even gives the SRO his own office.)

Following the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., communities across the country bought into the law enforcement hype that deploying cops in schools would curb violence. (Lebanon created its SRO program in 2004.)

More recent school shootings have called their effectiveness into question. In Parkland, Fla., the SRO hid outside the school during the 2018 rampage in which 17 people were murdered, and in Uvalde, Texas, police idled outside a classroom for more than an hour before confronting the gunman. And that’s before you get into the problems outside of comparatively rare school shootings — from excessive force to arresting children in matters that schools should handle.

 With one SRO for Lebanon’s four schools, I’m not sure that it even does much to keep students safer.

The money could be better spent on hiring more social workers. Or crossing guards.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

Sign up for our free email updates
Valley News Daily Headlines
Valley News Contests and Promotions
Valley News Extra Time
Valley News Breaking News

Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784


© 2021 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy