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Hanover High considers school resource officer proposal

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/2/2019 5:08:32 PM
Modified: 12/2/2019 5:08:28 PM

Two years ago, when a homicide at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center forced Hanover High School into lockdown mode, confusion ensued.

“We were all panicked, and we weren’t sure what was happening,” Stephen Wang, now a senior at Hanover High School and student Council secretary, recalled in a telephone interview last week.

That memory is one reason Wang, 17, of Hanover, supports a new proposal to hire a school resource officer for Hanover High School.

The proposal, now under consideration by the Dresden School Board, would assign an officer from the Hanover Police Department to Hanover High School, with the district paying the majority of the officer’s salary. The cost has not been determined, and it’s also uncertain whether the officer would serve full-time at the high school or split his or her time among the high school, Richmond Middle School and, possibly, Bernice A. Ray Elementary School, which is in the Hanover School District.

The board, which heard details about the proposal at its Nov. 19 meeting, is currently trying to schedule a community forum to gather input from the public. Depending on the community’s response, the new position could be added to the 2020-21 school budget in time for hearings in January, said Neil Odell, chair of the Dresden School Board, which oversees Hanover High School and Richmond Middle School.

“The community forum is essential,” Odell, who lives in Norwich and has two children at Hanover High School, said in a telephone interview last week. “I really have no idea as to where folks sit on this right now.”

The school resource officer would perform a variety of duties, including assisting with traffic issues around the school campus, completing residency checks and truancy checks, teaching classes on law-related topics such as internet safety, building positive relationships with students and responding to a range of situations requiring police involvement (such as drug possession).

The primary duty for which schools typically hire school resource officers, however, is one they will likely never have to perform: protecting students in the event of a mass shooting or other life-or-death emergency.

“As in every school in New Hampshire, first and foremost, it’s to add a level of safety and security to the building,” Superintendent Jay Badams said in a telephone interview last week. “In the worst-case scenario, there’s someone who’s immediately on-site.”

In recent years, with school shootings on the rise, many institutions have employed resource officers as one of numerous security upgrades. The National Association of School Resource Officers estimates there are 14,000 to 20,000 SROs working in about a third of the schools in the United States. Several Upper Valley schools have SROs, and Dresden has considered hiring one twice in recent years, Odell said, but there wasn’t enough interest among school board members to move forward with it.

The most recent proposal was precipitated in part by a 2017 security audit performed by the Department of Homeland Security.

“We really think that the time is right for a thorough consideration of this,” Badams told board members at the Nov. 19 meeting. He cited the lockdown, as well as a social media threat that shook the school community in March 2018, as examples of incidents when he thinks an on-site police presence would have benefited the school.

But while emergency preparedness is the key reason for employing an SRO, Badams believes there are other benefits. An SRO could perform many of the tasks that currently fall to an administrative staff that’s already stretched thin, for example, he said. And he or she could improve communication between the school and the police department when incidents requiring police involvement arise.

But some people say these benefits come at too great a cost. Studies have found that incidents requiring disciplinary intervention can escalate when a school resource officer is involved, and that’s particularly worrisome for advocates of students with disabilities, who are disciplined at two to three times the rate of students without disabilities, said Dresden School Board Secretary Lauren Morando Rhim, who is also the executive director and founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools. She’s also concerned about how having an armed police officer — possibly wearing a body camera — could affect the school’s culture.

“Does this introduce a level of surveillance in our high school? I don’t think we’ve begun to think about the implications,” Morando Rhim, whose children graduated from Hanover High School, said in a telephone interview last week. “I have a hard time seeing a way that I could be supportive of this.”

Supporters of the proposal, however, say that an SRO can improve the school culture by being a caring and involved member of the school community and building rapport between youth and law enforcement.

The school district where Badams previously served as superintendent, the Erie School District in Erie, Pa., had its own district police force, he said, and the police officers there forged excellent relationships with the school community. He acknowledges that the districts have very different needs — Erie is much larger than Hanover and has a considerably higher crime rate — but believes the core mission could be similar. “Those officers had the opportunity to really get to know the kids,” he said.

It’s also important that any officer who serves in the schools understand the problems that can arise and is sensitive to the needs of all students, including those with disabilities, Badams said.

Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis told the Dresden board that the SRO’s job description would not include patrolling the halls in search of infractions. “Our goal is not to be involved in (matters involving) violation of school rules, disciplinary issues, behavioral expectation,” he said at the meeting. “I think those are better handled by educators.”

Hanover High School Principal Justin Campbell discussed the proposal with the School Council in October. Their reactions were mixed.

“Council members who spoke at that meeting voiced concerns about how an SRO would react to physical altercations and how an SRO would handle situations with minority students,” Noah Phipps, a junior who serves as Dresden School Board representative for the Hanover High School Council, wrote in an email. “Some Council members also had concerns that having an armed officer in the school would change the culture and environment at Hanover High.”

Council member Sage McGinley-Smith, a junior from Norwich, said she was initially skeptical about the proposal.

“I think I just thought of a policeman with a weapon in the school, and I didn’t feel comfortable with that,” she said. After discussing the proposal in more detail, McGinley-Smith said she’s more comfortable with the idea but still not certain whether she fully supports it.

Alice Garner, a senior who serves as public relations officer for the Council, said she likes the idea of having an SRO at the school. Like Wang, the Council secretary who spoke about the lockdown, she said an officer would provide better communication between the police department and the school, as well as some peace of mind for students.

“For me, I feel like it would provide a safer presence within the school,” said Garner, 17, of Norwich.

Council members who have discussed the topic with fellow students say they’ve gotten a range of feedback. The Council’s Student Life Committee is currently drafting a survey for the full student body, Phipps said.

For many people, though, the question comes down to who ends up in the role.

“I think it is possible to find a candidate who will be able to interact positively with all students and act as a mentor and role model in the school,” Phipps wrote. “I would support and welcome an SRO who has demonstrated that they can act in this way. I believe that the right SRO can show students that a police officer is a resource and that the gun they carry is a tool and not something students should feel threatened by.”

McGinley-Smith agreed. “I think it really depends so much on who is hired for the position … and whether they make the student body feel as though they’re there for them and not out to get them,” she said. “If you get the right person, it could really make people feel a lot safer.”

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.

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