CONCORD, N.H. – Communities should eliminate school resource officers and reallocate resources from the police to counselors and social workers, a statewide commission on law enforcement accountability was advised at its meeting on Friday.

It also received recommendations on ways to deal with the public and mental health matters by diverting a police response to trained mental health-care workers for better outcomes.

Attorney Anna Elbroch, Rudman Teaching Fellow at the University of New Hampshire School of Law told the Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community, and Transparency that SROs contribute to “a school-to-prison pipeline.”

She said there is no conclusive evidence that SROs make schools safer and in the cases of mass school shootings at Columbine, Parkland and Virginia Tech, all occurred with armed security present.

“I see opportunities for police to create relationships outside of schools but not inside,” she told Commissioner of Safety Robert Quinn who asked if she saw any opportunity to enhance current SRO training programs.

“There are too many opportunities for students to feel uncomfortable,” with a uniformed police officer permanently stationed in their schools, she said.

Elbroch has been an attorney in New Hampshire for 19 years with 16 years as a public defender focusing on child advocacy.

Elbroch said statistics show juvenile crime is decreasing nationally and in the Granite State but school discipline is still very high and disproportionate to children of color.

In providing testimony, she said that in 2019 the state Division for Children Youth and Families served 3,071 children of which 499 were placed in residential institutions, including 101 to the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester.

Elbroch said reforms in law have helped reduce the number of children going into the criminal justice system but schools were a different situation. She said there were over 8,000 out-of-school suspensions in New Hampshire that year and while the population overall is 2% African American in the state, they represented 5% of all suspensions.

She said those who have been suspended are more likely to drop out of school. Schools with SROs have five times more arrests for students on disorderly conduct charges than schools that do not have school resource officers, she said.

“The permanent presence of law enforcement in schools leads to more discipline and overcriminalization of student behaviors in schools….(and) disproportionately end up in the juvenile justice system and the adult criminal justice system.”

As a parent, she said, her eighth-grader once texted her that she was hiding in the woods behind her school because there was a report of an active shooter on the campus. It was a false alarm, but it was terrifying for all and she said it did not matter to her or her daughter that there was an SRO in the school.

Some members said SROs might deter crimes, however, and that metric could not be easily researched.

Hanover Chief of Police Charlie Dennis, president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police and a member of the commission, said he did not think that disbanding SROs was a good idea but he thought that there are ways to work collaboratively and improve training.

Joseph Lescaze, ACLU-NH’s smart justice organizer and a member of the commission, said he wanted to talk with Elbroch about exclusionary discipline and the focus on students of color.

“What are the long-term effects of that?” Lescaze asked Elbroch.

She responded: “Not only are they labeled by school officials as ‘the bad kids’ but also any disruption in school (like suspension and removal) can impact academic success…they are then under this microscope of how their behavior is looked at.”

The students realize they are not able to succeed and it can result in them becoming involved in the justice system, she said.

“If you go to the prison right now I guarantee you there are people who couldn’t get out of the juvenile justice system … after just once being suspended,” she said.

Schools are where people need to learn and grow and not be a place for the overcriminalization of student behavior, she said.

Quinn said he wanted to showcase a document developed a few years ago by the New Hampshire School Safety Preparation Task Force. He called it “a living document” which touches upon many of the issues discussed by Elbroch’s testimony.

James McKim, president of the Manchester NH NAACP questioned how is school different from the rest of the world?

Elbroch responded: “Schools are different because the students are not adults and public schools are being entrusted to develop good citizens,” adding schools should not be deferring discipline to an armed officer.

Mental illness

The commission also heard from one of their own members, Ken Norton, executive director of the National Alliance of Mental Illness-NH, who made a number of recommendations that would improve outcomes for those who suffer from mental illness.

Police should not be blamed for the incarceration of people with mental health issues who experience negative outcomes. Right now there is a lack of other options than calling 9-1-1 for a mental health emergency.

“People in crisis need help not handcuffs,” Norton said.

He said as a nation, we need to move ahead with a 9-8-8 telephone helpline which Congress passed last week. Norton highlighted in his testimony a 2019 InDepthNH.org article that showed of 56 officer-involved shootings studied in New Hampshire, 45% involved a person with a documented mental illness.

Using SWAT Teams to respond to a mental health crisis can have escalating ramifications and more mental health training should be offered to those members. Norton also called attention to the training of police for interaction with the LGBTQ+ community.

He also called for a statewide mobile mental health crisis unit and pointed to the success of such units in Concord, Manchester, and Nashua for diverting mental health matters from the criminal justice system and from hospitalization.

He said those units get “better outcomes all around.”

Norton was questioned about the costs of additional training for police on mental illness.

He was asked about police mental health and the impacts of what they have to deal with as first responders.

“It is about culture change,” Norton said. “We need to strengthen that and improve that statewide.”

He said New Hampshire State Police have been seen as a model for its peer support program and there are other departments and critical incident debriefing teams, particularly in larger communities.

“We also need more providers in the community who are trained,” in such crisis treatment.

Quinn said he thought the comments of Norton are “spot on” and that Norton has helped with training.

“What Ken is doing to shine the light…is something we need to continue to work on,” Quinn said.

He said what Norton has brought to the table is probably at the top of the issues the commission needs to address in its report. “Anything we can do to keep officers safe, to keep those in crisis safe is paramount,” Quinn said.

The commission will meet next week in an effort to prepare a preliminary report for Gov. Chris Sununu by July 31.

The Attorney General’s Office has developed a draft report for the commission members to look at on their own over the weekend and to make recommendations by Monday at noon. Monday afternoon will be spent meeting virtually and working on the report. Wednesday at 9 a.m. the commission will meet again virtually for three hours and in the end, the commission will take a vote on recommendations.

A final vote will be taken next Friday. This report will focus on police training.

Two other areas of the report, which will deal with community relations with police and then police misconduct and public accountability will be addressed in a future report.

For more information on the commission visit governor.nh.gov/accountability.

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