Lebanon residents petition to do away with school police position

  • Asma Elhuni, left, and Richard Mello. (Courtesy photograph, left, and Valley News photograph)

  • 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.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/15/2021 6:19:21 PM
Modified: 1/16/2021 9:35:23 PM

LEBANON — Voters will decide in March whether to continue paying a police officer to patrol Lebanon’s schools or to do away with the position entirely.

A warrant article on this year’s ballot calls for the school district to “discontinue the use of a school resource officer” and transfer its share of the position’s costs into the general fund.

The measure, which was placed on the Lebanon School District warrant by petition and certified Wednesday by Lebanon City Clerk Kristin Kenniston, would go into effect July 1 if approved. Kenniston said 41 of the petition’s signatures were valid, surpassing the 25 needed to get onto the ballot.

Asma Elhuni, the Upper Valley activist who moved to Lebanon from Hartford last year and led the petition drive, said the warrant article is meant to support the wishes of some students who don’t feel comfortable with a police presence in their schools.

Students, especially those of color, should be able to attend class without fear that their actions will lead to criminal charges, she said.

“In order for students to be their best selves, to be able to learn, students have to be in an environment that allows them to not only feel safe but to make mistakes and learn like we all had growing up,” said Elhuni, who is also movement politics director for Rights & Democracy New Hampshire.

“If there’s an officer in the school, the message is not safety, it’s a message of possible criminalization,” she added.

Lebanon’s school resource officer, or SRO, dates back to the aftermath of the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. At the time, both Lebanon and Claremont took part in $750 million in federal grants that saw thousands of police officers placed in schools nationwide.

However, the program has shifted so that it’s now covered solely by Lebanon taxpayers. It costs about $120,000 for current SRO Gregory Parthum’s salary and benefits, with the cost split evenly between the city and school district.

Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello said that money is a “worthwhile” investment that provides outreach to students and schools.

“The school resource officer’s experience is that the students by-and-large are comfortable with him and the administration is comfortable with him,” Mello said.

The police chief also pushed back on the assumption that Parthum’s job is to discipline or even arrest students.

“I don’t see any data in Lebanon to indicate that that is true,” he said, adding that arrests over the last three years are “very few and far between.”

Records show that 11 of the 12 cases that came out of the high school and junior high between Jan. 1, 2018, and Dec. 31, 2019, were referred to a court diversion program, where students decline to contest charges and, in return, often agree to perform community service to avoid criminal records.

That includes an unnamed Lebanon High student who was sent to diversion in February 2019 for allegedly urinating in a snowbank.

The Lebanon Education Association supports the petition. Rather than a police presence, Lebanon’s schools would benefit from more social workers, said Andrew Gamble, president of the teachers union.

While the school district also employs two “student-assistance providers,” who focus on drug and alcohol issues, there are no social workers on staff, school officials have said.

“The greatest need in our schools is support for students,” Gamble said. “And I don’t necessarily get that from a school resource officer.”

Gamble, a social studies teacher at Lebanon High School, said the SRO post was added about 20 years ago with the promise that it would be reevaluated, but discussions about whether to retire the program didn’t start until this year.

In October, the Upper Valley chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America called on the school district to do away with the SRO as part of its pitch to cut Lebanon’s police budget in half by 2022.

That campaign, which was supported by many of the same people who signed Elhuni’s petition, ultimately led to discussions at the City Council and School Board as both groups drafted budgets for the coming year.

Councilors ultimately opted to keep funding the city’s share of the SRO after learning the city must maintain current policing numbers to comply with a November 2017 federal grant. That grant allowed Lebanon to hire two additional officers and calls for the return of about $275,000 to the federal government if the police department’s roster is reduced.

The School Board also tabled the matter when debating its proposed $45.9 million general fund budget in November.

The School Board has “no opinion on the petition warrant article,” Chairwoman Wendy Hall said in an email.

“The Board opted to leave the funding for the SRO position in the FY22 budget with the intention that we would engage in thorough and thoughtful discussions in the spring to determine what best serves the needs of our school community,” she said. “This is still our intention.”

The Lebanon School District’s deliberative session is scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 30, inside the Lebanon Middle School gymnasium.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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