Jim Kenyon: Lebanon schools don’t need an in-house cop

  • Lebanon School Resource Officer Greg Parthum cleans up after heating pipes burst in the science wing of Lebanon High School in Lebanon, N.H., Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 11/14/2020 9:53:43 PM
Modified: 11/14/2020 9:53:32 PM

Last month, a half-dozen Lebanon High School football players stood up for racial justice by kneeling during the national anthem before a game against visiting Newport.

After a picture of the players surfaced on Facebook, “there was a lot of backlash, but we didn’t let that get to us because there’s deeper meaning to what we’re doing,” Nyeoti Punni Jr., the lone Black player on the team, told Valley News staff writer Pete Nakos.

The Lebanon School Board and the city’s school administrators now have an opportunity to follow their students’ symbolic lead with concrete action.

I’m talking about getting rid of the school district’s cop.

For decades, Lebanon school officials have allowed an armed police officer with arrest powers to roam their K-12 school hallways. He’s so entrenched in Lebanon’s school culture that they’ve given him an office. The current cost — $120,000 a year, including benefits — is split between the city and school district. (But any way you cut it, taxpayers pick up the tab.)

Nationally, so-called school resource officers, or SROs for short, have been a favorite weapon in the never-ending war on drugs. In recent times, they’ve also provided a (mostly false) sense of security in preventing mass school shootings.

But after the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by cops in Minneapolis and a rash of police shootings caught on camera, school districts across the country are rethinking their cozy relationships with law enforcement.

At its meeting on Wednesday, the Lebanon School Board held a public discussion about the “role of (a) school resource officer.”

Upper Valley racial justice activists pointed out that not all students are comfortable having an armed cop in their midst. They cited federal data in a 2019 American Civil Liberties Union report — “Cops and No Counselors” — that “highlights the disproportionate harm that school police have on students of color and students with disabilities.” Black students had an arrest rate three times that of white students, the data showed.

The teachers union, called the Lebanon Education Association, also weighed in. While Lebanon’s longtime SRO Gregory Parthum is a “friend of ours,” a majority of high school teachers have opposed placing a cop in the school from the beginning, the union’s executive board said in a statement read at the meeting.

“We believe that the money would be better used for student support,” the union wrote. “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 them. The district pays ($60,000 a year) for the SRO and we receive little in benefits other than a few class visits a year.”

The ACLU of New Hampshire has also joined the fight to get cops out of schools. Jeanne Hruska, the nonprofit’s political director, told me that it’s often difficult to tell where school administrators’ authority ends and the SRO’s begins.

“It’s dangerous to blur those lines,” Hruska said. With all the social and emotional pressures, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, that teenagers must deal with, they don’t need to come face-to-face every day with cops carrying “guns and handcuffs” at school, she said.

Not everyone shares the ACLU’s concerns. At the board meeting, Lebanon Middle School Principal John D’Entremont called Parthum a “valuable resource,” who does “lunch duty” to build a rapport with kids.

Parthum, whose office was moved from the high school to the middle school this fall, spends time at all four city schools.

I don’t know Parthum, but school officials who see any SRO as Officer Friendly are kidding themselves.

This summer, I wrote about SROs, who work in a half-dozen Upper Valley school districts. I mentioned an unnamed Lebanon High student who found himself on the wrong side of the law for allegedly urinating in a snow bank in the school parking lot last year.

Parthum, who heard about it secondhand, wrote up the boy for indecent exposure. Before he was allowed to enter a court diversion program, the boy had to give up his constitutional rights. Diversion programs keep juveniles from getting criminal records, but they’re still a piece of the school-to-prison pipeline.

When asked at the board meeting about how he sees the SRO position, Lebanon Police Chief Rich Mello said “arresting people is not (Parthum’s) goal; it’s not my goal.”

I get why Mello likes having an SRO. Along with giving him ears and eyes inside the city’s schools, he gains an additional patrol officer, which comes in handy during tight budget times.

Lebanon’s school administrators were all too happy to go along with the chief. Even after hearing the teachers union advocate for replacing the SRO with a social worker, Superintendent Joanne Roberts and her school principals stuck with their this-is-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it argument for keeping a cop on the payroll.

Roberts has put the $60,000 for the SRO in the proposed 2021-22 budget. At Wednesday’s meeting, I didn’t get a sense the board would override her when it gets into nitty-gritty budget talks later this month.

Wendy Hall, who chairs the board, and Kristin O’Rourke, the board’s secretary, seemed to be the only ones willing to question whether having an in-house cop is needed.

When we talked Thursday, Hall was optimistic that the issues raised by activists — and now the teachers union — would get a full airing, but it likely won’t be until next year. “I don’t know where the discussion will go,” she told me. “This was our first step.”

This fall, along with football players kneeling for the anthem, Lebanon’s boys and girls soccer teams wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts in pre-game warmups.

Students are leading the way in the fight to achieve racial and social justice. Now it’s up to adults to find the courage to follow.

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

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