Jim Kenyon: Police reform can start in our schools

Valley News Columnist
Published: 4/24/2021 9:44:36 PM
Modified: 4/24/2021 9:48:48 PM

The call for police reform has captured a lot of attention and hearts in the Upper Valley during the last year.

But sooner or later, the Upper Valley’s reform movement needs a win — a substantive policy change that signals progress. (Several communities have passed so-called “welcoming ordinances” designed to protect undocumented immigrants, but they seem more symbolic than anything.)

That’s why so much is riding on what the Lebanon School Board decides in the coming weeks about its school resource officer position.

For 20 years, Lebanon school officials have bought into the fairy tale that deploying an armed cop to patrol the hallways of the city’s high school and middle school should be standard operating procedure.

Like having a lunch lady. Just more costly. This year, taxpayers are spending $120,000, including salary and benefits, for a school resource officer, or SRO for short, to serve as the eyes and ears of Lebanon PD on school grounds.

Following the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by police in Minneapolis, dozens of U.S. school boards, from Spokane, Wash., to Salem, Mass., cut ties with law enforcement.

The hope was that Lebanon would follow suit.

A successful citywide petition drive had reform advocates believing that voters would decide the fate of the SRO position.

But at the annual School Meeting’s deliberative session in January, police supporters pulled a slick procedural move to get an up-and-down vote on eliminating the position off the ballot. As a result, the warrant article that voters narrowly passed, 1,011-1,006, in March became nonbinding.

Which means the decision now rests with the nine-member School Board. On Wednesday, the board will listen to public comments from both sides. The in-person meeting at Lebanon Middle School starts at 6:30 p.m., and is also available on Zoom.

Board members aren’t expected to vote, however, until their meeting on May 12. “This whole process is taking a while, but we want it to be deliberate and informed,” Chairman Dick Milius told me in an email.

The board has received about 40 letters from people and groups on opposite sides of the issue. From what I could tell, they were split roughly 50-50.

Racial justice activists argue schools are no place for an armed cop with arrest powers. A 2019 American Civil Liberties Union report cited federal data 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.

“This issue is part of a national conversation about social justice,” wrote Doreen Schweizer, a clinical social worker. “The presence of any police officer in a school, no matter who that officer happens to be, puts more stress on students who are already marginalized.”

Lebanon resident Sarah Wraight pointed to the most recent federal data from the 2017-2018 school year that showed Black students made up 3% of the city’s student population, but at least 5.6% of referrals to law enforcement. Students with disabilities made up 19.8% of the student population and 34.8% of referrals to law enforcement.

Asma Elhuni, of the grassroots organization Rights and Democracy New Hampshire, was among those who want school leaders to shift resources. “Rather than putting money towards an SRO, funds for additional mental health workers who would be available during crises should be the priority,” Elhuni wrote.

About as many people seem to support the status quo. Nate Plummer, a Lebanon parent, told the board that seeing a police officer’s cruiser in the high school parking lot gives him a “sense of security and safety.” Linda Bagley, a former school district employee, wrote that a cop’s presence is necessary to handle kids who are “out of control” and help with “unruly parents.”

Law enforcement groups, including the union that represents Lebanon police officers and the New Hampshire Juvenile Police Officers Association, have weighed in as well. The National Association of School Resource Officers, based in Hoover, Ala., warned in its letter that if “good SROs are removed then the potential for school-based arrest(s) could increase as patrol officers are called to resolve criminal issues on campus.”

Gregory Parthum, the Lebanon police officer who is the current SRO, also wrote to the board.

“Students access the SRO to report crimes and incidents of bullying and to inquire about various laws,” Parthum said. “Now more than ever, we need to continue building positive relationships between law enforcement and our youth.”

Lebanon High School Students of Color Collective, a student organization started in 2016, told the board that Parthum has “shown himself to be a good person.” Still, the students — 20 or so students of color attend at least a couple of the group’s meetings a year — oppose the “concept of police playing an active, daily role in our schools. Police officers are not trained to deal with students with trauma.”

Lebanon isn’t the only New Hampshire school district wrestling with the SRO issue. In Concord, the school board punted earlier this year, opting to form a task force to study it more.

Kate Vaughn, of Concord, is among a group of a half-dozen New Hampshire lawyers advocating change.

“We’re all watching what happens (in Lebanon),” she told me. “It takes a lot of courage for a school board to say it wants to get rid of cops.”

In reading through the letters to the Lebanon board, I thought Judith Bush, a Lebanon resident and mental health therapist, summed up the situation best. “Change is always hard,” she wrote.

But if not now, when?

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

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