Helena set to continue negotiating SRO agreement with school district

Helena High School
Posted at 6:15 PM, Aug 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-05 00:24:25-04

HELENA — The city of Helena is set to continue its program that places police officers in public schools – though city leaders say they hope to see reforms.

On Wednesday, the majority of the Helena City Commission – including Mayor Wilmot Collins and Commissioners Emily Dean and Sean Logan – directed city manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk to negotiate a new memorandum of understanding with the Helena School District, including provisions for the School Resource Officer program.

They made several suggestions for ways they thought the agreement could be improved, including clarifying officers’ roles on campus and incorporating suggestions from an ACLU white paper on policing in schools.

“I think we’ve heard a commitment from the superintendent and the board chair that, truly, as a community, the district wants to work with the city in solving problems and consistently and continuously getting better,” said Commissioner Emily Dean.

Leaders also talked about the need for other types of resources in schools – particularly to help students who may not feel comfortable approaching SROs – but they said work must still be done to determine the best way to provide those.

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 MOU with the district, to take effect after June 30, 2021.

Harlow-Schalk gave commissioners an update on the working group’s findings during Wednesday’s administrative meeting. She said the community remained divided on the SRO program, and that the city needed to do a better job of explaining what the officers do – specifically clarifying that they are not involved with school discipline.

Harlow-Schalk said she interpreted the goal of the working group as identifying things that worked about SROs and things that didn’t, as a way to improve the eventual MOU.

“The intention was to offer up an opportunity for me to hear why and what the purpose of the school resource officers were,” she said.

Social justice organizations like the ACLU of Montana and Montana Racial Equity Project had a different interpretation. They criticized the organization of the working group, saying the discussion should have included alternatives to the SRO model and that important voices – particularly those of Helena students – were not fully heard.

Keegan Medrano, policy director for the ACLU of Montana, told MTN the organizations hoped this won’t be the end of the discussions.

“I ultimately feel that it’s incumbent on the council and the mayor to show some leadership on this and clearly state goals, outcomes and take a bold stance on this issue, and have those difficult conversations,” Medrano said.

Commissioners Heather O’Loughlin and Andres Haladay opposed moving forward with the updated MOU. They said they also felt the scope of the working group’s discussion had been too narrow, and that important voices had not been heard. They said it didn’t appear there would be any significant changes to the SRO program as a result of these negotiations.

“In my mind, I think the city could have been more intentional about the particular voices that were included on the working group,” O’Loughlin said.

Mayor Wilmot Collins said he was interested in continuing the discussions about larger changes to the school resource officer model, but with school starting in less than a month, the best option for now was to continue the program.

“I fully support the SRO within the school system, while we continue to work on the process,” he said.

Last year’s hearings on whether to remove school resource officers from HPS campuses 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.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to add quotes and additional details.