Valley News – Jim Kenyon: Lebanese schools may run out of excuses to keep campus cop

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Any hopes by the Lebanese school board that this would be a quiet, uneventful summer ended last week when the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire entered a battle over whether an armed police officer should continue to patrol the hallways of the city’s schools.

In a letter to the nine-member board, Gilles Bissonnette, the ACLU’s legal director, challenged the board’s claim that a citywide vote in March to “terminate the school resource officer program” was non-binding and advisory only. Out of a tally of 811-650, 56% of voters supported the warrant article that was petitioned to vote.

However, unlike 2021, when a similar warrant article was passed by just five votes, the March vote did not include “non-binding” language, Bissonnette pointed out in his letter. (A sample 2022 ballot on the city’s website fails to mention that the vote is non-binding.)

“If the board believes that its constituents’ votes are not binding, we request a formal, written statement of the validity of that belief,” Bissonnette wrote. “At the very least, the board should vote on whether to ignore the warrant article. The voters in Lebanon deserve this information to understand and evaluate the position of the school board.”

On Friday, School Board Chairman Richard Milius informed me that the ACLU letter is now in the hands of the Drummond Woodsum School District Attorney, a firm in northern New England.

After the company reviews the letter, its response will be released quickly, Milius said. “It’s not just about us and the ACLU,” he said. “That interests a lot of people.”

If the ACLU is found to have firm legal standing, board members and others who believe a police presence is necessary to keep the schools safe may not hold out for much longer.

Why is this?

In April, the board voted 5-4 to continue the position of school resource officer, better known as SRO, through at least February 2024.

Renee DePalo, who was elected to the board in March, was among the most vocal supporters. But DePalo resigned in June after leaving town.

Her replacement, Wendy Hall, will be the likely alternate vote. Hall, who previously served on the board for six years, including two as chair, did not seek re-election in 2021.

Halle could not be reached for comment on Friday.

Proponents of police reform and racial justice have been trying for two years to eliminate the SRO position, which costs Lebanese taxpayers $120,000 a year.

A group called the Lebanon High School Students of Color Collective, which has met regularly to talk about racial issues since 2016, joined the effort more than a year ago. In a 2021 letter to the board, the students wrote that they “reject the concept of the police having an active day-to-day role in our schools. Police officers are not trained to deal with traumatized students.”

The school district hired a social worker for the upcoming school year. But if school officials thought this would appease SRO opponents, they were wrong.

Earlier this month, the Lebanese Diversity, Justice and Inclusion Commission called on the city council to support the termination of the SRO position “in the face of racial and (disability) ability injustices resulting from police presence in schools”.

The city and school district each provide $60,000 in taxpayer dollars annually to pay for the SRO.

But instead of backing the commission, the councilors poked. “I think it would be outside of our jurisdiction to make that recommendation,” Councilor Karen Liot Hill said at the July 6 meeting. “That’s not our job.”

In other words, not our problem.

Meanwhile, City Manager Shaun Mulholland plays the schoolyard bully. Asked at an April school board meeting what would happen if the SRO position were cut, Mulholland warned there would be a price to pay.

Currently, the city is responsible for hiring, training, and paying part-time school transition guards. That would stop if the SRO position were eliminated, Mulholland said, a savings of $28,000 a year for the city.

But Mulholland’s threats (I don’t know how else to describe them) didn’t end there. A board member asked if this also meant that Lebanese police would no longer stand in for border guards when needed.

Yes, Mulholland replied. Finding replacement guards would be the responsibility of the school district. “You would have to use your organic staff to cover that,” he said.

Councilman Devin Wilkie, the council’s representative on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission, said he was surprised to hear Mulholland bring the border guards into the SRO debate.

“I wasn’t sure why that was relevant,” Wilkie told me. “It’s not something I’ve heard in the more than two years we’ve discussed SRO funding.”

Mulholland’s attitude is not surprising. Before moving to the city administration, he was chief of police.

For years, police officers have used scare tactics to gain public support for allowing police officers with guns and arrest powers to set up shops in school buildings. (Lebanon even gives the SRO its own office.)

After the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, communities across the country bought into law enforcement hype that having police officers in schools would stem the violence. (Lebanon launched its SRO program in 2004.)

Recent school shootings have questioned their effectiveness. In Parkland, Fla., the SRO hid outside the school during the 2018 school shooting that killed 17 people, and in Uvalde, Texas, police waited outside a classroom for more than an hour before confronting the shooter. And that’s before you get into the issues outside of the comparatively rare school shootings – from excessive violence to arresting children on matters schools should be covering.

With an SRO for the four schools in Lebanon, I’m not sure if it does much to keep the students safe at all.

The money could be better spent hiring more social workers. Or border crossings.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at [email protected]

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