HAVERHILL — School resource officers in Haverhill public schools are here to stay — at least for now.
Mayor James Fiorentini was unsuccessful Thursday night in an attempt to remove one resource officer from a school post and put the officer back on the street. School Committee members unanimously voted down Fiorentini's request.
In asking to put the patrolman back into regular police service, Fiorentini said he wanted to bring an additional school adjustment counselor into the system. That would happen by having the system pay for the counselor with money that goes to the school officer.
While the mayor's request was shot down, he is continuing discussions with the police chief and school superintendent about the need for resource officers in school buildings and the possibility of replacing them with counselors.
The question has local leaders examining the issue from two perspectives.
Leaders are weighing, on one hand, the gains for students who need emotional support that would come from more counselors. Leaders are also examining the losses that would result from taking police officers out of schools: the safety that results from police presence in buildings, as well as inside information officers are able to gain by being among students — information about issues such as drug and gang activity.
The school resource issue emerges in Haverhill as a national debate continues over "defunding" police. For some people, "defunding" police means spending less money on law enforcement by diverting some police funds to elsewhere in a community's budget.
During a discussion Wednesday night on racism and policing with the City Council and local religious and law enforcement leaders, Fiorentini wondered if school money could be better spent on adjustment counselors rather than resource officers.
"I've asked the police chief (Alan DeNaro) and superintendent (Margaret Marotta) to take a look at whether we need all the SROs we have or if they'd be better placed out on the street, where we do need officers out patrolling, and if there's a better way to do it," Fiorentini said during the remote session, which was aired live on HC Media. "Is there a better allocation of resources? Would adjustment counselors be better? Those are things we need to think about."
Adjustment counselors work in schools and focus mainly on special education students with individualized education plans, assisting with their mental health and social-emotional needs. Such counseling positions already exist, but in Marotta's proposed fiscal year 2021 budget more money is being eyed for mental health support services.
When school is in session, resource officers are assigned to school buildings. One officer is stationed at Haverhill High and there is one each at the Consentino Middle and Nettle Middle schools. Officers at the middle schools also provide support at other schools if necessary. A fourth school resource officer is assigned to Whittier Regional High School, which is not part of the Haverhill public schools system but does serve Haverhill students, as well as students from 10 other communities.
When school is not in session, resource officers work regular patrol shifts assigned by the Police Department.
School Committee member Gail Sullivan said resource officers pay dividends in and outside of school.
"The ideal SRO is someone who knows who's fighting with who, who's out in the community, and in the school can deal with things before they become a problem," Sullivan said. "Ideally it's someone who has great social skills and someone who kids like and trust."
School Committee member Scott Wood, who is chairman of the School Safety Committee, said having an officer assigned to a school can help provide insider information that the officer can discreetly get from students about issues such as drug or gang activity. The police presence also improves day-to-day school safety, Wood said.
Wood, who advocated to have an officer posted at Nettle Middle School in March 2019, said resource officers can work in tandem with adjustment counselors to assist students.
"Adjustment counselors are a resource we provide anyway and it works well in combination with the SROs and other resources that we have for kids," Wood said. "There's not a 'one size fits all' situation where one position can accomplish it all."