Removal of the police officers who patrol middle and high schools during the school year is being considered by the city of Helena.
Helena City Manager Ana Cortez said the proposal to remove school resource officers from the middle and high schools, which was announced during Tuesday's school board meeting by Superintendent Tyler Ream, is one proposal among many as the city deals with budget cuts before next year's budget is finalized.
"There are a number of proposals on the table," Cortez said. "The city is proposing a number of measures to improve efficiencies in the city."
Cortez said the possible decision to remove school resource officers was just a possibility in "brainstorming" sessions the city was working on.
"When we come forward with the budget, that's when the commissioners will decide," Cortez said.
She called the conversation about school resource officers "premature," because a number of things were still on the table.
School resource officers came into being in Helena after the 1999 Columbine massacre in Littleton, Colorado, when the federal government provided a grant to fund officer salaries and training for four years. Once that funding dried up, the Helena Police Department picked up the tab, Interim Helena Police Chief Steve Hagen said.
"School resource officers work with the schools to work with students," Hagen said. "They deal with drugs, disorderly students, kids who bring weapons to school, and they deal with things outside of the school too."
Officers attend special training to prepare for the different style of police work they face in the middle and high school environments. Hagen said officers are generally at the schools from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. during the school year, but will respond to calls outside the school depending on the situation.
"During the session we have them working up (at the Capitol) ... to supplement the officers up there," Hagen said.
Officers interact at multiple levels with school students and staff, Hagen said. They will work with "troubled kids" and the teachers and counselors who interact with them on a daily basis.
Hagen estimated costs for the city’s four school resource officers at $400,000 per year.
"It depends on the officer," Hagen said. "But that's training, benefits, vehicles, gas for vehicles," and the officer's regular salary.
Hagen said there are various things the city and police department are weighing as they make a decision about the officers, reiterating that discussions were early in the process.
Ream said the school district had "certainly" been surprised by the city's proposal to remove school resource officers.
"Two of our district administrators met with a team a short time ago and they told us that given their impending budget challenge they would be reallocating those positions to daily patrol," Ream said.
He added that the city said the school district could fund the positions from their budget or work with the police union to consider a levy to pay for the officers' salaries, benefits and other costs.
Ream said school resource officers are "near the top of the list" in terms of providing campus safety, and not just because of their jobs as law enforcement officials.
"They're a proactive part of campus safety with the relationships they develop with the kids," he said. "They are an integral part of the team that works to support students."
He said if the city was willing to have a conversation, he knows that high school administrators and parents would like to provide context about the importance of school resource officers.
"I would applaud any further discussions about school resource officers and this decision in relation to our budget," Ream said, “but the ball is out of our court.”
A member of the Helena School District board of trustees expressed dismay at the possibility of losing the school resource officers.
"We don't know what the status is, we just know what we were informed of by the district superintendent," board member Jeff Hindoien said.
"It is within the city of Helena's purview to ultimately decide how to allocate limited general fund resources for daytime patrol assets," Hindoien said. "But this is a big decision from a standpoint of community safety and child safety."
Hindoien said that his concerns were not just as a trustee, but also as a parent of a high school student and a citizen of the city of Helena. "The community is entitled to know what processes have been taken to that position point, why those value judgments were made, and why they came on that side of the equation," Hindoien said.