School resource officer or social worker? Lebanon superintendent opting for both

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/5/2021 7:45:40 AM
Modified: 12/5/2021 7:45:11 AM

LEBANON — The proposed $46.5 million budget that Lebanon School Board members approved last month includes both a school resource officer and a social worker.

If Lebanon voters approve the budget come March, the district would hire a social worker who would start work next school year, Superintendent Joanne Roberts said on Thursday.

Board members voted Nov. 20 to approve the budget, giving the administration leeway to decide where to cut $150,000, around the same amount that would be required to hire a social worker. That cut and board comments led to a widespread belief among supporters of hiring a social worker that the position would be cut from the budget or that the board had empowered Roberts to decide which to keep.

Not so, Roberts said in an email responding to a reporter. Instead, she and the district’s other administrators will find the savings without affecting the social worker position, Roberts said.

“We’ve got a budget of something like $46-, almost $47 million,” Richard Milius, chairman of the Lebanon School Board, said Thursday. Money will be available for the social worker, he said.

“There’s a commitment there,” Milius said. “That’s going to happen.”

Roberts noted in her email that the turn of the school year brings staffing changes that save money, as senior educators retire and junior ones step in.

In hiring a social worker for the 2022-23 school year, school officials hope both to aid students and to cool a hot-button issue. The experience of having both a social worker and a Lebanon police officer in the schools will allow school officials to determine how much the two roles cover the same ground.

“It may turn out that there’s enough overlap that both positions aren’t needed,” Milius said. “But we’re going to do this deliberately.”

Lebanon voted, 1,011-1,006, in March on a nonbinding referendum to discontinue the school resource officer position. In May, the School Board voted, 5-4, to retain the officer for the current school year.

In discussions since then, racial justice activists seeking the end of the SRO have urged the board to replace that position with a social worker.

But the board lacks a mandate from voters to do so, according to Milius.

“The community is divided, right down the middle,” he said.

The conversation about the work of the school resource officer and the social worker has been a difficult one, in part because it’s hard to talk about students who have needed the services of the SRO and whether those students might have been better served by a social worker, Milius said.

“You start talking about individual cases and our superintendent breaks out in a cold sweat,” he said.

Supporters of replacing the SRO with a professional trained solely to provide care and not use force contend that having law enforcement in the halls can be counterproductive. But the addition of a social worker, regardless of whether the SRO is retained, is seen as a welcome development.

“It’s time Lebanon took action to support the mental well-being of our students in a proactive, rather than reactive manner,” Maggie MacArthur-McKay, a classroom paraprofessional and school garden coordinator at Hanover Street School, wrote to Roberts last week.

School Board member Tammy Begin, who voted in May to retain the school resource officer, also supports the hiring of a social worker.

“I never thought it was presented as an either-or to us,” Begin said in an interview.

Lebanon established the school resource officer position in 2005 and Lebanon Police Officer Gregory Parthum has served in that role since 2006. He spends most of his time at Lebanon High School, but also makes regular visits to the middle school, where his office was moved last fall.

The police department and the school district split the cost of his employment, with the school district contributing around $60,000, Milius said.

Amid the ongoing debate over racial justice, the school resource officer, and police practices more generally, have received increased scrutiny. People of color remain more likely than whites to be detained and killed by police and high-profile instances of police killing Black Americans, in particular, have led to a period of reckoning.

Having police in school creates an atmosphere in which people don’t feel safe, said Doreen Schweizer, a longtime Lebanon resident and social worker. She’d like to see the SRO replaced, but is glad the district plans to hire a social worker.

“The best thing for all of us, how we will thrive as human beings in this world, is related to how we feel safe in this world,” Schweizer said in an interview.

After the Nov. 20 meeting, she had been under the impression that the School Board had left in the superintendent’s hands whether to retain a school resource officer or a social worker, and Schweizer sent Roberts a message urging her to make a change.

As pleased as she is to have a social worker in the budget, the retention of the SRO is dismaying, she said.

“It feels a little bit to me like no one wants to accept the responsibility to get rid of the school resource officer,” Schweizer said.

Schweizer said she feels strongly that replacing the SRO with the social worker is the right thing to do. “There’s so much fear in the culture right now,” she said, speaking of the national mood.

A social worker, by paying attention to well-being, will be able to teach others to help create “an atmosphere of caring,” she said.

“I feel like that is just the best environment for learning,” she said.

While the School Board has tried to contain spending in the operating budget, it also will be asking voters to approve a new three-year teachers contract, which is close to being finalized, and a bond issue for school improvements, Milius said. There will be more details at Wednesday’s meeting, he said.

The Lebanon School Board meets at 6:30 in the Lebanon Middle School cafeteria and on Zoom. To find the Zoom link, go to and look for the “School Board” tab.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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