Helena postpones SRO working group to seek additional input

Helena School District
Posted at 7:37 PM, May 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-26 21:37:36-04

HELENA — Helena city leaders say they need more time for discussions before the next meeting of a working group that is looking at the future of the city’s School Resource Officer program.

This month, the working group has held two meetings to talk about ways to update the memorandum of understanding that places uniformed police officers on Helena Public Schools campuses. However, the city announced Tuesday afternoon that the third meeting, scheduled for that evening, would be postponed.

“We decided that, in order to have another meeting that would be productive and useful and appropriate for the purpose of this group, we really needed to postpone and look for a later date to reschedule it,” said Jake Garcin, the city’s public information officer.

The decision came as some members of the working group criticized its organization, saying not all perspectives were being heard. Last week, representatives from the Montana Racial Equity Project and the ACLU of Montana sent an open letter to city manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk. In it, they said the working group was “stacked with pro-SRO leaning committee members.” They vowed to pull out of future meetings unless the group was reorganized to better represent those in the community who don’t want officers to remain on campus.

“The original stated purpose of this group was to have a robust discussion surrounding the purpose and utility of having SROs in Helena school district,” the letter said. “Our experience at the initial Working Group meeting is that there is no interest in such a robust discussion and that the decision to keep the existing model of SROs in schools has already been made.”

Harlow-Schalk met with those social justice groups this week. Garcin said, in light of those conversations and the city’s ongoing efforts to get more input from Helena students, delaying the meeting was the best option.

“Having a more holistic input process will certainly give us a more complete MOU when we come out of this,” he said.

The working group is part of a discussion that began last year. In 2020, the Helena City Commission held a series of hearings on whether to remove school resource officers from HPS campuses. The proposal drew extensive testimony on both sides. Opponents of SROs questioned whether they are necessary and said they create a less welcoming environment, particularly for Black and Indigenous students and those with disabilities. Supporters said the officers improve safety in the schools and can form positive relationships with students.

In the end, the commission voted to continue the SRO program for one year, then bring stakeholders together to talk about ways to update the memorandum of understanding with the school district.

The working group includes 27 members, from school administrators and police representatives to mental health providers and HPS parents. Three members came from the social justice groups – Judith Heilman and Courtney Smith from MTREP and Akilah Lane from the ACLU.

In their letter, Heilman, Smith and Lane said the testimony on SROs last summer had been relatively evenly split between supporters and opponents, but the majority of the working group already appeared to be in favor of maintaining the program. They also said the large group and short amount of time for meetings made it difficult to have meaningful conversations. They asked that the group be reduced to 15 members, with half opposed to keeping SROs in school.

Garcin said it’s too soon to say whether they will make changes to the structure of the working group, but that it’s important to the city to have these groups included in the process and they went to keep engaging with people of all perspectives.

“It will be a challenge to come to an agreement or a solution that everyone can get behind, but our hope is, with these working groups and this process, we can at least come to a place where everyone has felt heard.”

The city has not yet made a decision on when the working group might return for its next meeting.

This working group is just one of six the city set up as part of a wider review of Helena Police Department operations – started in response to the death of George Floyd just over a year ago. The first of those groups, on civilian review boards, is also holding meetings this month. The others will begin meeting later this year.