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Bill to limit school resource officers sees resistance from New Hampshire police departments 

Monitor staff
Published: 2/9/2021 5:20:39 PM

After a summer of protest over police conduct, some lawmakers are looking at the next item of reform: school resource officers.

A bill presented to the Senate Education Committee Tuesday seeks to pare back the authority of police in schools by establishing limits on when they can engage with students.

Officers embedded in New Hampshire schools are empowered to maintain discipline, investigate crimes and make arrests on school grounds.

But the positions have come under scrutiny in recent years by reform advocates who argue that the officers’ presence can have negative effects, unnecessarily stigmatizing and criminalizing children who act out. And they point to data showing that disciplinary actions in schools fall disproportionately on racial minorities – even in New Hampshire. 

Sponsored by Sen. Becky Whitley, a Concord Democrat, Senate Bill 108 would prevent students from being arrested at school unless they posed a “substantial and imminent threat to students, teachers, or public safety.”

The bill would prohibit a school resource officer from searching a student’s person, backpack or locker without first having probable cause, and would require them to consult with the school’s principal or senior administrator before doing so.

Under the bill, a school resource officer would not be allowed to question a student in a situation where they knew that questioning would “elicit criminal information,” without notifying the school principal and the students’ parents first. 

“It continues the state's ongoing commitment to addressing the behavioral health needs of students,” Whitley said to the committee. 

The bill would mandate that schools adopt a “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) with the police department with a series of minimum requirements. The agreement would specify the school resource officer’s role in doling out discipline, where the division of authority lay between the school and the police department in emergency situations, what the policies were on use if physical force and what information could be shared between the school and police. Schools would have to create a complaint process for parents, teachers and students against the officer, as well as oversight by the school administration. 

The bill would require that the school district publish a copy of the agreement on its website and share it with the state Department of Education. 

Advocates said the bill was necessary to standardize school resource officer boundaries across the state and ensure accountability and restraint. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire; New Hampshire Legal Assistance; and the Disability Rights Committee spoke in favor of the bill, which they said would reduce discrimination and injustice against Granite State children. 

“This bill would promote transparency and accountability by ensuring that MOUs are public, and that they include a minimum set of considerations including restrictions on an SRO’s involvement in student discipline and how an SRO would be supervised,” said Jeanne Hruska, political director at the ACLU of New Hampshire. “Parents should know what a police officer at their child's school will be doing and specifically what they will not be allowed to do.”

But police departments and school board officials have pushed back on the bill, arguing that it would limit schools’ ability to come up with a nuanced, school-specific arrangement. 

“The needs in Manchester are going to be different than the needs in perhaps smaller schools," said Barrett Christina, the executive director of the New Hampshire School Board Association. “So, we think that these issues and these comments and concerns and operations, if you will, will be best left developed locally.”

Police officers pointed to the work of the Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency (LEACT), which produced a “model MOU” for school districts to use with their local police departments.

Manchester Police Chief Allen Aldenbergsaid the bill's requirement that parents be notified before questioning raised concerns about confidential reporting of abuse at the home. 

“The language of the bill as presented will set forth a dangerous and unreasonable precedent within our schools,” Aldenberg said. 

Brian Trefry, a lieutenant in the Nashua Police Department, said the bill would unnecessarily tie the hands of law enforcement in schools. “As written, Senate Bill 108 is far too restrictive to day-to-day operations within schools,” he said. 

One Republican lawmaker on the committee, Sen. Denise Ricciardi of Bedford, raised concerns that the bill would interfere with local control by dictating a top-down approach to school resources across the state. 

Meanwhile, some police reform advocates pushed for the state to go even further than simply regulating police in schools by removing them altogether.

Last month, Change for Concord, an advocacy group made up of Concord students and parents, drafted a letter calling for the school district to abolish school resource officers, citing data from the U.S. Department of Education indicating that Black students have received a disproportionate brunt of the punishments by police in Concord schools.

While only Black students compromise only 9% of the student population at Concord, they made up 19% of referrals to law enforcement and 20% of out-of-school suspensions in 2017, the letter stated.

“These numbers clearly represent a problem within the school district, and we applaud your willingness to take this issue seriously and work to correct it,” the letter wrote. “One way that you could begin to make a difference would be to remove the Student Resource Officer from the high school.”

Instead, those who signed the letter said the school should spend its resources on mental health and counseling. 

The letter went on to criticize the “triad” approach to the school resource officer position at the school, voiced by the state Department of Safety. That department, which oversees the New Hampshire State Police, stated the goal for school resource officers is to act as law enforcers, educators and informal counselors.

Change for Concord rejected that approach as unworkable. “First, we disagree that law enforcement officers, armed with weapons and the authority to arrest, belong in schools,” the letter stated. “Second, SROs are neither competent educators nor counselors.”

SB 108 does not abolish school resource officers. But one participant in Tuesday's hearing suggested it.

“I want to start off by stating clearly that I believe police do not belong in schools, period,” said Asma Elhouni, the New Hampshire movement politics director with Rights & Democracy, a left-leaning advocacy group. “And that this bill does not go far enough by allowing police to still remain in schools. But I am supporting this bill because it does restrict police powers in school and it is better than what we currently have.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the status of the letter written by Change for Concord to Concord school officials. It has been drafted but not yet sent.

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