HELENA — The Helena City Commission has decided to continue the city’s School Resource Officer program for one year, and conduct an extended review of the program before proposing a new model for the future.
On Monday, the commission backed a proposal by Commissioner Emily Dean – continuing the city’s contract to provide uniformed Helena Police Department officers on Helena Public Schools campuses through June 30, 2021, but creating a new memorandum of understanding with the district to take effect after that.
Dean’s motion calls for stakeholders including the school district, health care providers, teachers, students and families to be part of putting together the new MOU. It also releases $292,000 in funding to the Helena Police Department, which had been on hold until the commission decided what to do with the SRO program.
The commission has spent about a month holding discussions about armed officers in Helena schools. Supporters of the SRO program argued the officers improve school safety and form important relationships with students. Opponents questioned the effectiveness of SROs and said they created a less welcoming environment, particularly for Black and Indigenous students.
City leaders took public comment on the program at three meetings in July, including Monday night. However, Dean said she believed there needed to be a more robust process to determine the best way forward.
Dean’s motion means that the current SRO contract will expire at the end of June 2021, but it does not necessarily mean an end to the SRO program at that time.
“This puts it in the district’s hands and the stakeholders’ hands to decide what the path forward is,” said Dean. “If that means all stakeholders come to the table and at the end, we say we are going to redefine what the role of SROs are in schools, great. If it means the district says, ‘You know what, maybe we do just need two SROs,’ great.”
All five members of the commission voted for Dean’s proposal, but only after a proposal from Commissioner Heather O’Loughlin failed on a 3-2 vote. O’Loughlin’s motion would have definitively ended the SRO program after Dec. 31 and redirected two additional HPD patrol officers to prioritize responding to calls at schools.
O’Loughlin, who has been the commission’s most vocal advocate for eliminating SROs, said her plan would have given the school district time to come up an alternative model for responding to the issues that are currently handled by SROs. Commissioner Andres Haladay also supported her motion, while Dean, Commissioner Sean Logan and Mayor Wilmot Collins voted against it.
After O’Loughlin’s proposal was defeated, she and Haladay said they would reluctantly support Dean’s plan, but that they were concerned that the new memorandum with the school district would not make substantial enough changes to address the concerns that opponents of SROs had raised – especially accusations about unequal treatment for students of color and those with disabilities.
“My sense is that the desire may be to maintain physical police presence in schools, and I think it’s unfortunate that we couldn’t really make a clear statement today about that,” said O’Loughlin. “But I am hopeful that we can have a dialogue that does result in a different model that does not include constant police presence in schools.”
O’Loughlin amended Dean’s motion to include racial and social justice groups in the discussion about the future MOU. Groups like the ACLU of Montana and Montana Racial Equity Project were among the main advocates for redirecting funding from SROs to other types of services.
The city’s decision was praised by Helena school board chair Luke Muszkiewicz. He and other school district leaders had asked the commission not to immediately eliminate SROs, saying they didn’t want to see any resources removed from campuses so close to the start of the new school year.
“Now, we must continue the work that the Helena City Commission has appropriately asked of us: continue to review our SRO program, develop aspirational goals and plans to achieve them, and move forward to better serve our students, teachers, staff, and volunteers through a revised MOU with the City of Helena,” Muszkiewicz said in a statement.