N.H. Bill Would Restrict SRO Powers

Whitefield Police Chief Ed Samson (bearded, during the Bucks for Beards campaign that benefits the Granite State Children's Alliance)

Proposed legislation would restrict powers for school resource officers.

Sponsored by Sen. Becky Whitley (D-Concord), Senate Bill 108 would set limits on how SRO’s engage with students.

The bill ties into greater debate over police reform. It addresses concerns voiced by opponents that school police officers criminalize students.

Under the bill, SROs would not be allowed to:

• Arrest students unless they posed “a substantial and imminent threat to students, teachers or public safety,”

• Search students’ person, possessions, or locker without probable cause,

• Question students under circumstances that “might elicit criminal information” without consulting a school principal and the student’s parents.

SB 108 would also require a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the school district and police department.

The MOU would set minimum training and certification requirements and outline an SROs role in student discipline. It would specify the division of authority between police and school staff, and what information could be shared between schools and police. Schools would create SRO supervision, evaluation and complaints processes.

Those MOUs would be publicly viewable on the Department of Education web site.

The Senate Education Committee voted 5-0 to advance SB 108. It goes to a Senate floor vote on March 4.

IT’S WHAT WE’VE BEEN DOING

Whitefield Police Corporal Patrick Carr, the school resource officer at White Mountains Regional High School, said many of the measures included in SB 108 were already common practice in his department.

“As far as the actual enforcement, and how we deal with the schools, it’s spot on,” Carr said. “It’s what we’ve been doing from the get go.”

Whitefield has two school resource officers, Carr and Ofc. Jennifer Lemoine, who is assigned to K-8 Whitefield Elementary.

“We have a modified, more personal approach. We get to know the kids,” Carr said, noting the smaller enrollments at WMRHS (359 students) and WES (250).

As SROs, Carr and Lemoine are focused on trust-building and early intervention, to steer students away from negative behaviors, and keep them out of trouble.

The schools administer discipline, but Carr will take students aside, he said.

“I let kids know ‘The school will handle this, but if this happened on the street, do you know what kind of trouble you’d be in?’” Carr said.

The biggest change for Whitefield Police under SB 108 would be paperwork, Carr said.

“We’d have to file some paperwork with the state department of education and possibly change some MOUs,” he said.

COVID CHALLENGES

COVID has posed challenges for school resource officers.

Normally, Carr and Lemoine have extensive interactions with at-risk students. But during the pandemic they see kids less (because of hybrid and remote learning) and pick up on fewer social cues (because students wear masks and maintain social distance).

“You can’t pick out a sad face, or the kid that’s been crying or is angry,” said Carr, adding, “It’s the hardest thing about COVID. It frustrates me everyday.”

Also, because students are learning partly or entirely from home, there has been less truancy intervention.

In response, Carr and school officials have organized informal home visits, to reconnect with students at risk of falling behind and dropping out, in hopes of drawing them back.

Carr worries that students learning from home with less supervision, structure, and support could fall into bad habits — with potentially life-altering consequences.

“I think there will be a little bit of an influx in substance abuse the next couple of years, where normally there wouldn’t have been,” he said.

Noting pandemic challenges to being an SRO, Carr said, “It’s very hard to go to school and think you’re going to protect the kids any way you can, and not be able to do it as effectively as you could have, because of these [COVID] restrictions.”

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