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Column: Schools are no place for armed police

For the Valley News
Published: 5/9/2021 10:00:04 PM
Modified: 5/9/2021 10:00:03 PM

It has come to my attention that there was some confusion regarding where the Lebanon Education Association stands on the issue of the school resource officer position. The LEA was never supportive of the school resource officer position from when it was forced upon us in the aftermath of the Columbine tragedy. In June, the LEA executive board agreed that our schools are no place for an armed police officer, which is the same position we took over 20 years ago.

The murder of George Floyd reinforced our resolve that Lebanon School District money would be better spent on increasing support for our students. One multiple occasions, we expressed this concern to the superintendent and the School Board, including a brief statement read to the school board in the fall

We have a student assistance provider at the high school and middle school, but there is no such support at either of the elementary schools. Our student assistance providers have been invaluable to our students. Over the past 22 years, we have experienced a large increase in students who are in crisis and we do not have enough resources to deal with these issues.

The district pays about $60,000 a year for the school resource officer and we receive little in benefits other than a few classroom visits a year. Through discussions with teachers who have had the officer in their classroom, we concluded that the same objectives and results could have been met just by inviting an officer to come to class. Furthermore, the vast majority of teachers counsel students to meet with the student assistance provider and not the school resource officer.

None of our concerns should come as a surprise to anyone.

When the high school teachers were presented with the idea of a federal grant to fund the school resource officer back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we were not in favor. It was not a concern for our other schools because, at the time, the officer was only for the high school. When it became clear that we did not have much say in the matter, we requested that the officer not wear a gun in school. We were told that was not an option. We were also told that, after the grant ran out, we would have a chance to revisit whether to continue with the school resource officer. Unfortunately, the subject never came back to the teachers.

Officer Gregory Parthum is a kind person and many of us consider him a friend. But this is not about him, it is about the position. As professionals who are genuinely concerned about equity and safety, then we should listen to our students of color who stated in their letter to the board: “We believe that the money spent on the ‘SRO’ could be better spent on hiring staff from the Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) community. This in many ways will help the school to better serve the students and their needs that are not being currently met. We need counselors, and mental health providers and people who are trained in youth development. We need people who understand what it’s like to be a person of color. If the school district really wants to make this school a healthy and safe environment then this school also needs to hire staff from the BIPOC community who know how to support and validate us. There are plenty of qualified people of color that the school can hire. In order for that to happen this school must be an environment where BIPOC feel welcome and safe.”

This year the school resource officer has been working on the middle and elementary school campuses only and not at the high school. This has been a relief to our students of color and has not had any negative impact on the teaching, learning and counseling that Lebanon High School teachers and counselors do daily.

Lebanon is a special place and has been working hard on the social-emotional well-being of our students and being trauma-informed. However, those jobs are falling disproportionately on the teachers, paraeducators and staff at all of our schools. For the district to act in the genuine interest of students, we feel we should divert funds from the school resource officer position and appropriate more funds to provide student support staff. Moreover, we should work with our state representatives and senators to reverse statutes that require mandatory reporting to the police for minor offenses.

The Lebanon Education Association has not held an up-or-down vote on this issue because until recently, the school resource officer position has been predominantly at the high school four days a week and one day at the middle school. However, we asked our members if they would like to discuss the matter, have a vote or both. As of this writing, we only received one email asking to do so.

Similar to the School Board, the LEA is a representative form of government. We represent all of the bargaining unit whether they are members or not. As the elected officers of the LEA, we support the removal of the school resource officer from our schools. We are willing to engage the board and our membership in further discussions.

J. Andrew Gamble is president of the Lebanon Education Association and a technology integrator and social studies teacher at Lebanon High School.

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