The Helena City Commission approved a memorandum of understanding with Helena Public Schools during its Monday evening meeting to provide four Helena police officers as school resource officers through Aug. 1, 2025.
Per the memorandum, the city will foot half the bill, $166,000 per school year, while the school district will cover the other half and up to an additional $6,000 per school year for SRO training.
"I do believe that it is true partnership that we have and not only in support of this (memorandum of understanding), but also moving forward in a relationship," Helena Public Schools Superintendent Rex Weltz told the city commissioners.
It represents the first update to the memorandum since 2013, and Weltz said the two biggest changes were a more thorough explanation of SRO duties and insurance.
Helena Police Chief Brett Petty said since the program's inception in the late '90s, a formal agreement between the two entities had never been put in place.
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"For historical reference, we're at a great point here, and to have this actually down on paper and ... to have the guidelines in place is absolutely huge in creating this relationship," he said. " ... It's a wonderful thing moving forward."
The SRO program guidelines as laid out by the memorandum stipulate policies regarding data collection, non-investigatory interactions with students, criminal investigations and custody of students, among others.
Portions of the guidelines state SROs should not handcuff students "unless the student presents an immediate threat" and "(r)easonable care should be taken to avoid 'parading' a student in the hallways on school grounds."
The agreement further states the district and police department must maintain publicly available data on such metrics as the number of students taken into custody, the number of incidents resulting in SRO intervention and the numbers and types of complaints filed against SROs.
The memorandum goes on to state the city will be required to provide a minimum amount of training that includes at least 40 hours of a basic SRO training course and annual refresher courses in addition to yearly 10-hour in-service training courses related to topics such as child and adolescent development and psychology; positive behavioral interventions and supports; and cultural competency.
Within one year of assignment, SROs must complete Crisis Intervention Team training and conduct an annual emergency drill with the Helena Fire Department at the school to prepare for such events as an active shooter, according to the guidelines.
The four officers will be assigned to Helena and Capital high schools and Helena and C.R. Anderson middle schools. The district's elementary schools will not have dedicated officers assigned to their campuses, but all SROs will be the "primary and preferred response to elementary schools within the city," the memorandum states.
The agreement further states at least two SROs will be on duty on public school campuses at all times during a school day, barring "exigent circumstances."
The city approved the hiring of four SROs in September.
At the middle schools, officer Scott Finnicum is in C.R. Anderson and officer Jessica Cornell is in Helena Middle School. At the high schools, officer Jon Pulsifer is in Capital High School and officer Bret Haux is in Helena High School.
This is Cornell's and Haux's first year as SROs, but Finnicum and Pulsifer both have at least one year of experience in the position.
To become an SRO, an officer puts their name into a pool, interviews are conducted, and the selected officers are assigned to their schools.
In the summer of 2020, following nationwide civil unrest spurred on by multiple police brutality cases and an ACLU of Montana report on disproportionate SRO engagement with minority students, the city commission withheld about $300,000 from the Helena Police Department's operations personnel budget with the intention of finding better uses for those city resources.
The money was later restored to the police budget with the caveat that city staff work with the school district in formulating a more inclusive community discussion on the topic and come up with a new memorandum of understanding by June 30, 2021.
Those community discussions resulted in no substantive recommended changes to later policies or agreements.
"I don't think we executed very well, so I'm not comfortable moving forward at this stage," then-City Commissioner Andres Haladay said during an Aug. 4, 2021 meeting. "I don't think we actually got a clear picture of what this MOU is going to look like other than my understanding that it's going to be pretty much more of the same."
Weltz credited the Helena Public Schools and city attorneys for crafting the new memorandum.
On Monday, City Commissioner Emily Dean applauded the chief, superintendent and "numerous staff" for their work on the agreement.
"We had really broad and difficult conversations across the community," Dean said. "I think we've gotten to a place where this document, compared to what we had before this is way, way more comprehensive, and I think we're the better for it."