When it comes to the question of armed and uniformed police officers as a permanent presence in the public school system, emotions run high on both sides of the argument. Debate over school resource officers, as they are known, has for years been a regular feature of New Hampshire town meetings and school board deliberations.
Local officials will soon have new guidance on the issue, thanks to the work of the governor’s commission on police accountability. Officially known as the New Hampshire Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency, the 14-member commission was appointed by Gov. Chris Sununu last spring amid national protests over systemic racism in policing.
After several months of public hearings and analysis of voluminous testimony, the commission produced more than 50 recommendations, all endorsed by the governor. While the commissioners touched on everything from training to transparency, they spent a disproportionate amount of their time on school resource officers, or SROs. Ultimately, the commission recommended training changes, but stopped short of recommending that SROs be removed from schools.
At one point commission chair, Deputy Attorney General Jane Young, had to move things along as debate bogged down.
“We are going to have to move at a quicker pace,” she said. “We can’t spend a couple weeks on SROs. We just can’t.”
The commission was unable to build consensus around a proposal that SROs be eliminated, which was opposed by law enforcement and state agency representatives. Elimination of SROs was supported by commissioners representing public defenders, the ACLU, NAACP and Black Lives Matter, as well as those representing people with disabilities and mental illness.
In the end, the only SRO-related recommendations to land on Sununu’s desk involved training and administration of the program. The commission recommended that districts with an SRO clearly and publicly outline the responsibilities of the officer, and that SROs get additional training. Communities in New Hampshire can continue to employ SROs if they choose.
A new model emerging
Communities that decide to deploy school resource officers will soon have a model memorandum of understanding between the school district and local police departments.
The commission called on the Police Standards and Training Council to develop a model SRO Memorandum of Understanding.” The document, to be signed by the chief of police and superintendent of schools, covers such things as responsibilities and duties of the SRO, supervision of the SRO, rules on the investigation and questioning of students, arrest procedures, search and seizure and administrative hearings.
That model MOU was posted on the training council website at the end of December and is currently in draft form. Once finalized, the MOU will be available for the communities that decide to use it, as the commission recommends all districts with an SRO do.
The commission also wants agreements regarding school resource officers to be made public, so that anyone can see how narrow or expansive they are. Some are limited to the payment schedule, while others already mirror the model created by the National Association of School Resource Officers. Legislation is currently being drafted to put some teeth into this recommendation.
Perhaps the most significant recommendation regarding SROs is the proposal for a mandatory training program, beyond normal law enforcement training, that would certify officers for the role. The requirement would be implemented through the legislative rule-making process. According to the most recent update posted to the commission dashboard, “A draft rule is in progress. Effective Police Contact with Youth was added to the curriculum in January.”
To become certified, SROs would have to complete programs like the National Association of School Resource Officers training, the Mirror Project, which encourages officers to put themselves in the kids’ place, and Effective Police Contact with Youth. The training council will soon establish annual in-service training hours required to maintain SRO certification.
We’ve been here before
If history is any lesson, there is likely to be opposition to any additional requirements on school resource officers when the proposal goes through the legislative rule-making process, which involves hearings and a vote before the Joint Legislative Committee on Rules. A bill that would have accomplished much of what is being proposed was debated back in 2015 and gutted.
As originally filed, HB 527 would have required a detailed MOU along the lines of the model from the National Association of School Resource Officers. It also established a minimum 40 hours of specialized training and 10 hours of supervised, on-the-job training.
Michael Skibbie, policy director for the Disability Rights Center of New Hampshire, brought the past attempt at SRO regulation to the commission’s attention. He testified on behalf of the Juvenile Reform Project, a collaboration of the ACLU-NH, the Disability Rights Center, New Futures, New Hampshire Legal Assistance, and Waypoint (formerly Child and Family Services of New Hampshire).
“The two requirements of training and role definition are widely recommended by the United States Department of Justice, United States Department of Education, and the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Unfortunately, neither are required in our state. An SRO can operate in a New Hampshire school with no explicit limitations of their role and no specialized training for their role,” Skibbie said.
He said that HB527 had “all the key components” that advocates want to see in reform, but the requirements were removed due to objections by law enforcement agencies.
“All that was left when the bill finally passed was a mere requirement of a written agreement between police agencies and schools that anticipate using SROs, but no requirement that there be any particular content in those agreements,” Skibbie said.
Calls for elimination
Anna Elbroch, the Rudman Teaching Fellow at the UNH School of Law, spent 16 years representing children as a public defender and later in private practice. She cited research and personal experience to link the presence of police officers in the schools to disproportionate prosecution of Black and Hispanic students.
According to the most recent statistics available from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, in 2015-2016 Black students represented 5 percent of all out-of-school suspensions in New Hampshire, while accounting for 1 percent of the state’s population; Hispanic and Latino students represented 12 percent of suspensions, while representing 4 percent of the population.
“Research clearly shows that students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to drop out of school, repeat a school year and/or have contact with the juvenile justice system,” said Elbroch. “School Resource Officers often contribute to this school-to-prison pipeline. Schools with school resource officers have five times more arrests for disorderly conduct than schools without officers. The permanent presence of law enforcement in schools leads to more discipline and overcriminalization of student behavior in schools.”
One national study found that schools with SROs had twice the rate of court referrals for disorderly conduct, according to Skibbie.
Presentations like that and many others from SRO opponents triggered combative responses in a forum that for the most part had been very cordial through 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 New Hampshire State Police offered full-throated defense of the SRO programs and their popularity among students, parents and educators.
“The communities in New Hampshire that I’ve seen are extremely strong on the point, that they do want officers in the school,” said Lt. Mark Morrison, commissioner representing the N.H. Police Association.
When Commission member Julian Jefferson, an attorney in the N.H. Public Defenders Office, claimed that “children as young as 10, 11 and 12 are constantly being arrested by police officers,” he triggered something rarely seen – the release of actual data on juvenile prosecutions.
Running the numbers
In response to Jefferson, Manchester Lt. Matthew J. Larochelle from the juvenile investigative unit had the department’s crime analysts run some numbers, pointing out that police do not “arrest” minors, they file petitions with the Circuit Court. James Testaverde, deputy chief in Nashua, provided a similar response.
Jefferson later admitted he used the wrong word but did not find the information from the police departments very comforting. The Manchester data showed that over 5.5 years, 14 kids ages 12 and under were prosecuted for felonies, and 78 misdemeanor offenses, Jefferson said.
“Ninety-two prosecutions for children 12-years-old or younger from one locality in five-and-a-half years is something worth taking the time to deliberate upon,” he said.
Nashua police pulled data from 2014 to 2020 that showed eight juvenile petitions filed with the courts for suspects ranging in age from 12 to 17.
A Senate bill (SB 96) written to implement many of the LEACT recommendations got its first hearing in Concord on Tuesday (Feb. 2). One provision in the legislation would ban charges of criminal delinquency for children under age 13 unless they committed a violent crime. The state’s Child Advocate Moira O’Neill urged lawmakers to approve the change.
Two different universes
Officer Rick Bergeron of Hollis, whose work earned him the McDonald’s Community Involvement Award in 2016, is president of the newly formed New Hampshire Juvenile Police Officers Association (NHJPOA), a non-profit formed to support SROs statewide.
He operates under an MOU similar to what the commission is proposing for all resource officers and agrees with the commission that such detailed agreements are helpful. In five years, he has filed misdemeanor criminal charges against a total of 11 students.
“Although my experience is only within one SAU, I would suggest to you that in order for any SRO program to be valid and accepted within the community it serves, there has to be agreement on the expectations of the program,” he said. “A police officer is never simply part of the staff of the school, yet a School Resource Officer often has to be accountable to both police administrators and school administrators.”
The debate over school resource officers is not going away and is certain to resurface in Concord as legislation and rulemaking related to the commission recommendations moves forward. It may be difficult for lawmakers to reconcile the two perspectives on the program, which diverge so dramatically.
“It’s as if we live in two different universes,” said Jefferson.
Dave Solomon can be reached at email@example.com.
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