Helena commission delays discussion on future of school resource officer program

Helena Police Department
Posted at 12:25 PM, Jun 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-01 20:24:59-04

HELENA — UPDATE: Helena city leaders delayed a planned discussion on the future of school resource officers Wednesday, as the full city commission was not able to participate.

Mayor Wilmot Collins was excused from the beginning of the commission's administrative meeting, and the other commissioners decided to put off the subject until a later meeting. They left it to the discretion of City Manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk to reschedule.

This story has been updated. The original post is below:

On Wednesday, the Helena City Commission will be asked to give direction on how to move forward with the program that places uniformed police officers in Helena schools.

City Manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk is set to give an update on the city’s police reform working groups during the commission’s administrative meeting. The primary focus will be on the group that was looking at the future of the School Resource Officer program.

Last year, after extensive debate over a proposal to eliminate SROs, commissioners voted to continue the program for one year, but put together a group of stakeholders to suggest a new model going forward. Their motion called for a revised memorandum of understanding with the school district, to take effect after June 30, 2021.

In a memo to commissioners, Harlow-Schalk said she needs additional policy direction from them before she can work on an updated MOU with Helena Public Schools leaders. She said there was disagreement on what the new memorandum should do with SROs – eliminate them altogether, or keep them while adding practices and strategies to address justice and mental health needs.

Harlow-Schalk said in her memo that, since the city’s only current role within the schools is providing SROs, they have focused on improving the SRO program. She said the city and the Helena Police Department cannot improve mental health or restorative justice when they aren’t responsible for providing those services.

According to the memo, the Helena School District and incoming Superintendent Rex Weltz have continued to ask the city to provide SROs, but they haven’t asked them to take on any additional mental health or restorative justice work.

Harlow-Schalk’s memo also included her summary of the work completed by the SRO working group. She said it remained clear there was still divided opinion in the community, with both strong support for and strong opposition to having police officers in schools. She said it did not appear there was any pattern of Helena SROs behaving inappropriately, but that leaders have to do a better job of explaining what those officers do.

The memo also referred to what Harlow-Schalk called an "impasse" with two social justice organizations that had been part of the working group. In May, representatives from the Montana Racial Equity Project and the ACLU of Montana sent an open letter to the city, saying the way the group was organized meant that not all perspectives were being considered, and vowing to pull out if those who didn't want officers on campus weren't better represented.

The two organizations say their goal was to maintain a balanced conversation on SROs, allowing all opinions to be heard. They say their representatives were not willing to go to the meetings if the elimination of SROs was part of the discussion.

The working group held two meetings in May, then delayed further meetings while Harlow-Schalk held discussions with the social justice organizations. The group eventually held two final meetings this month, with MTREP and the ACLU not participating.

Also during Wednesday’s meeting, the commission will discuss a possible memorandum of understanding between the city and the Montana Department of Transportation, laying out a framework for planning the reconstruction of West Custer Avenue. The ten-year agreement would be a first step toward a long-awaited project to widen the street. Residents have frequently complained about the heavy traffic on Custer.

The administrative meeting will begin at 4 p.m. and will be streamed over Zoom. You can find more information about the meeting here.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated to clarify and correct the position of the ACLU of Montana and Montana Racial Equity Project on school resource officers and on the working group. We have determined the original wording was misleading. We apologize for the error.