When it comes to the question of whether armed and uniformed police officers have a constant presence in the public school system, emotions are high on both sides of the dispute. The debate about school officials, as they are known, has been an integral part of New Hampshire town councils and school board deliberations for years.
Local officials will soon receive new guidance on the matter thanks to the work of the Board of Governors on Police Accountability. The 14-person commission, officially known as the New Hampshire Commission on Accountability, Community and Law Enforcement Transparency, was appointed by Governor Chris Sununu last spring as part of national protests against systemic racism in the police force.
After several months of public hearings and analysis of extensive statements, the commission made more than 50 recommendations, all of which were approved by the governor. While the commissioners touched on everything from training to transparency, they spent a disproportionate amount of their time with school officials or SROs. Ultimately, the commission recommended changes in training but did not recommend removing SROs from schools.
At one point, commission chairwoman Assistant Attorney General Jane Young had to move things forward when the debate stalled.
“We have to move faster,” she said. “We can’t spend a couple of weeks with SROs. We just can’t. ”
The Commission was unable to reach consensus on a proposal to eliminate SROs that was rejected by law enforcement officials and state authorities. The elimination of SROs was supported by commissioners representing public defenders, the ACLU, NAACP and Black Lives Matter, and people with disabilities and mental illness.
In the end, the only SRO-related recommendations to land on Sununu’s desk were training and administration of the program. The commission recommended that districts with an SRO clearly and publicly state the officer’s responsibilities and that SROs receive additional training. New Hampshire communities can continue to employ SROs if they choose.
A new model is created
Communities that decide to appoint school officials will shortly have a model Memorandum of Understanding between the school district and local police forces.
The commission asked the Police Standards and Training Council to develop a model memorandum of understanding for the SRO. “The document, to be signed by the police chief and school principal, includes the duties and responsibilities of the SRO, supervision of the SRO, rules for investigating and questioning students, arrest procedures, searches and seizures and administrative hearings.
This declaration of intent was published on the training council’s website at the end of December and is currently in draft form. Once complete, the MOU will be available to the communities that wish to use it, as the commission recommends all districts with an SRO to do so.
The commission also wants agreements on school officials to be made public so everyone can see how tight or expansive they are. Some are limited to the payment plan, while others already reflect the model created by the National Association of School Resource Officers. Legislation is currently being drawn up to give some teeth to this recommendation.
Perhaps the most important recommendation regarding SROs is to propose a compulsory training program that goes beyond normal law enforcement training and certifies officers for the role. The requirement would be implemented through the legislative process. According to the latest update posted on the Commission dashboard, a draft rule is in progress. In January, effective police contact with young people was added to the curriculum. ”
To be certified, SROs would need to complete programs such as the National Association of School Resource Officers training, the Mirror Project, which encourages officers to take the place of children, and effective police contact with youth. The Training Council will shortly determine the annual training hours required to maintain SRO certification.
We have been here before
If the story is a doctrine, there is likely to be resistance to additional requirements on school officials as the proposal goes through the legislative process, which includes hearings and a vote before the Joint Legislative Committee on Rules. A bill that would have achieved much of what is being proposed was discussed and gutted back in 2015.
As originally submitted, HB 527 would have needed a detailed letter of intent modeled on the National Association of School Resource Officers. In addition, a minimum of 40 hours of specialist training and 10 hours of supervised on-the-job training were specified.
Michael Skibbie, political director of the Disability Rights Center in New Hampshire, drew the Commission’s attention to the earlier attempt at SRO regulation. He testified on behalf of the Juvenile Reform Project, a collaboration between the ACLU-NH, the Disability Rights Center, New Futures, New Hampshire Legal Aid, and Waypoint (formerly New Hampshire Children’s and Family Services).
“The two training and role definition requirements are widely recommended by the Department of Justice, Department of Education, and the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Unfortunately, none are required in our state. An SRO can work in a New Hampshire school with no specific role restrictions and no specific training for their role, ”Skibbie said.
He said HB527 has “all the key components” that proponents want to see in reforms, but the requirements have been removed due to objections from law enforcement agencies.
“All that was left when the law was finally passed was just a written agreement between police authorities and schools that stipulated the use of SROs, but not a requirement that those agreements contain any specific content,” Skibbie said.
Calls for elimination
Anna Elbroch, Rudman Teaching Fellow at the UNH School of Law, represented children as a public defender for 16 years and later in private practice. She cited research and personal experiences to link the presence of police officers in schools to the disproportionate persecution of black and Hispanic students.
According to the latest statistics from the U.S. Department of Education for Civil Rights, black students accounted for 5 percent of all extra-curricular suspensions in New Hampshire in 2015-2016, while they accounted for 1% of the state’s population. Hispanic and Latin American students made up 12% of the suspensions while representing 4% of the population.
“Research clearly shows that students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to leave school, repeat a school year and / or have contact with juvenile justice,” said Elbroch. “School Resource Officers often contribute to this school-prison pipeline. Schools with school officials have five times more arrests for disorderly behavior than schools without officials. The constant presence of law enforcement agencies in schools leads to increased discipline and over-criminalization of student behavior in schools. ”
A national study found that schools with SROs were twice as likely to receive judicial referrals for disorderly behavior, according to Skibbie.
Presentations like this and many others from SRO opponents sparked combative reactions in a forum that had been for the most part very cordial during the months of deliberation.
Lieutenant Carlos Camacho of the Nashua Police Department, Captain Mark Newport of the Portsmouth Police Department, and Major John Marasco of the New Hampshire State Police provided a comprehensive defense of SRO programs and their popularity with students, parents and educators.
“The New Hampshire churches I’ve seen are extremely strong on the point that they want officials in the school,” said Lt. Mark Morrison, NH Police Association commissioner.
When Commissioner Julian Jefferson, an attorney for the NH Public Defenders Office, alleged that “children aged 10, 11 and 12 are constantly being arrested by police officers,” he sparked something that was rarely seen – the release of actual data about Juvenile prosecutions.
In response to Jefferson, Manchester let Lt. Matthew J. Larochelle, of the Youth Investigation Unit, was gathering some numbers from the department’s crime analysts, pointing out that the police are not “arresting” minors but are petitioning the Circuit Court. James Testaverde, assistant chief in Nashua, gave a similar answer.
Jefferson later admitted he had used the wrong word, but found the information from the police department not very reassuring. The Manchester data showed that over 5.5 years of age, 14 children ages 12 and under were prosecuted for offenses and 78 offenses for misdemeanor, Jefferson said.
“Ninety-two law enforcement proceedings for children aged 12 or under from one place in five and a half years are worth taking the time to think about,” he said.
Nashua Police Department retrieved data from 2014 to 2020 showing that eight youth claims were filed in the courts on suspects aged 12-17.
A Senate bill (SB 96), which was drawn up to implement many of the LEACT recommendations, was first negotiated in Concord on February 2nd. A provision in the law would prohibit criminal charges for children under the age of 13 unless they have committed a violent crime. The state’s child advocate Moira O’Neill urged lawmakers to approve the change.
Two different universes
Hollis Official Rick Bergeron, whose work earned him the 2016 McDonald’s Community Involvement Award, is president of the newly formed New Hampshire Juvenile Police Officers Association (NHJPOA), a nonprofit established to support SROs nationwide.
It operates under a Memorandum of Understanding similar to the Commission’s proposals for all resource officers, and agrees with the Commission that such detailed arrangements would be helpful. In five years he has charged a total of 11 students with misdemeanor charges.
“Although my experience is only within an SAU, I would suggest that an agreement on the expectations of the program must be reached in order for an SRO program to be valid and accepted within the community it serves,” he said. “A police officer is never simply part of the school staff, yet a school resource officer must often be accountable to both police officers and school administrators.”
The debate about school officials is not going to go away and is sure to re-emerge in Concord as legislation and rule-setting related to the Commission’s recommendations move forward. It can be difficult for lawmakers to reconcile the two perspectives of the program, which are so dramatically different.
“It’s like we’re living in two different universes,” Jefferson said.
Dave Solomon can be reached at [email protected]. These articles are shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. More information is available at kollaborativeh.org.