Lebanon School Board stays the course on campus cop

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 8/26/2022 12:00:44 AM
Modified: 8/25/2022 11:57:13 PM

LEBANON — One week before the start of the new school year, the School Board reaffirmed its plans to retain a school resource officer in Lebanon schools.

On Wednesday, the board reviewed a draft of a contractual agreement between the Lebanon School District and the Lebanon Police Department for the provision of a school resource officer to the school district, a sworn police officer who works in school settings to assist in school safety.

Once again, opponents of the position urged the board to reconsider.

“The school I went to didn’t have police officers associated with our district or in our schools (and) we got by just fine without them,” resident Kate Collins said during the public comment period of Wednesday’s meeting. She said the money to fund a school resource officer could be better allocated to arts programs or mental health resources for students in need.

Board Secretary Lilian Maughan, who voted against the officer agreement in April, raised concerns about the vagueness of the officer’s role, at least as described in the draft agreement. One section, Maughan cited, says the officers will “attempt to identify particular individuals who may be a disruptive influence to the students or school” and “gather information regarding potential problems such as criminal activities, gang activities and student unrest.”

“I feel that language may be a slippery slope,” Maughan said. “It is very vague and gives too much latitude.”

The school board voted, 5-4, in April to authorize a new agreement for a school resource officer, despite opposition from residents and board members.

A school resource officer often works in collaboration with school administrators, school social workers and other staff, to develop safety procedures and identify potential threats, with duties that include intervening in altercations and de-escalating aggression or conflicts involving students or adults.

But many Lebanon residents object to the program, saying that stationing police officers in schools creates an intimidating environment for many students and increases the level of active policing in schools.

While the use of school resource officers in schools in the U.S. has increased, so have concerns by communities about the adverse impacts. Educational studies, including by the U.S. Department of Education and National Center for Juvenile Justice, point to unintended consequences of placing police officers in schools, resulting in more opportunities for negative interactions between youth and police officers and an increase in youths being referred to the juvenile justice system for criminal offenses.

In March Lebanon voters passed an article, 811-650, to eliminate the school resource officer position, after successfully adding the article to the school warrant by petition. Lebanon also approved the same warrant article the previous year, though by only five votes that time.

But the article was nonbinding, meaning that it has no authority to direct the school board’s actions.

Several residents on Thursday asked the School Board to reconsider its decision to renew the school resource officer program.

“(Even) if the vote on the warrant article is nonbinding, that does not mean that the board should ignore the expressed will of the community,” said resident Kathleen Beckett. “Rather the board members have an obligation to pay attention to that decision.”

Board member Lisa Vallejo Sorenson attempted to motion for the board to have an up-or-down vote whether to discontinue the school resource officer program. But board Chairman Richard Milius denied the motion’s validity because it would conflict with the action already approved by the board to renew the program.

Sorenson contended that her motion was a separate issue, arguing that the board vote in April concerned only whether to authorize a new agreement, not whether the district should have a school resource officer in the first place.

A vote to override the chair and allow Sorenson’s motion failed to pass, resulting in a 4-4 tie.

The current agreement would remain in effect through the 2023-2024 fiscal year but would allow the school district to defund the position next budget cycle, effectively ceasing the program prior to the agreement’s expiration.

On Thursday board members asked for additional terms and language to better clarify the officer’s roles, responsibilities and limitations. These requested additions included a reference to federal laws protecting student privacy and articulating the grievance process available to students and families.

The draft agreement will go next to Lebanon Police Chief Phil Roberts for his review.

Following a nonpublic session, the school board voted unanimously to publicly release a letter from the school district’s attorney James O’Shaughnessy, explaining New Hampshire law pertaining to the authority of governing bodies over nonbinding warrant articles or petitions. The board said it will be made public after making minor edits to the document.

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