Helena, MT - Beginning in the summer of 2020, hundreds of Helena’s citizens protested the horrific killing of George Floyd and sought meaningful police reform measures in Helena. There was intense community debate regarding school resource officers (SROs) during July’s City Council meeting. Public comment yielded approximately 50% support for the current SRO model and 50% opposition to the current SRO model. Consequently, further discussion at the City Council level was deferred, and a working group was formed to evaluate the SRO issue and consider various perspectives.
In the City Manager’s memo of January 6, 2021, the proposed composition of the SRO working group consisted of 14 members. However, at the first meeting on May 11, 2021, the call included 27 working group members. Of those members the overwhelming majority began their personal introductions by openly stating their support for SROs in Helena School District. This included at least two working group members who are administrators of the Helena Area 406 Back the Blue’s Facebook group; three who are current members of law enforcement, one stating that “SROs are heroes”; and two are Helena city officials who stated their support for maintaining the status quo of SROs. Additionally, the most impacted group was never represented in this conversation – Helena’s students.
ACLU of Montana and The Montana Racial Equity Project (MTREP) made clear in our letter of May 18, 2021, that we would no longer be attending the SRO working group meetings unless the composition of the group was changed, and the subject of discussion was expanded to allow for a more robust exploration of the role and purpose of SROs in Helena schools. We sought a response from City Manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk in advance of the May 25th meeting. No response was offered in writing.
On June 10, 2021, Rachel Harlow-Schalk met with ACLU of Montana and MTREP and offered to form a new group that would engage in this more robust dialogue with the school district to look at the scope and purpose of maintaining SROs in Helena’s School District. We requested that this draft written proposal be sent to us- a proposal we never received.
Instead, in her memo of June 30, 2021, City Manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk grossly misstated our position writing, “If SROs are maintained in any form, it will create an impasse with the social justice organizations they had sought to include in the working group. The Montana Racial Equity Project and ACLU of Montana remained opposed to any effort to keep officers in schools, and they pulled out of the working group last month, claiming it was ‘stacked with pro-SRO leaning committee members’”.
City Manager Rachel Harlow-Schalk’s statement that, “if SROs are maintained in any form, it will create an impasse” is untrue and misrepresents our position, as fully explained in our letter of May 18, 2021 and echoed inthe meeting on June 10th. We repeatedly outlined the need for membership reflective of the community’s perspective, including students, willing to engage in actual dialogue and not the foregone conclusions of some individuals. It is extremely disheartening to see the people of Helena’s voice be silenced and swept under the rug by city bureaucracy.
At the outset, the ACLU of Montana and MTREP joined to advocate for and organize members of impacted groups and engage in meaningful dialogue, not to serve as window dressing, while the City Manager and others let this community-inspired effort flounder and die. We remain committed to engaging in relevant and purposeful discussions regarding SROs and the original stated purposes of the SRO working group.