City contract with GFPS for school resources officers on July 7 agenda

During their July 7 meeting, City commissioners will consider renewing the city’s agreement with the Great Falls Public Schools district for four school resource officers for the 2020-2021 school year.

GFPS and the Great Falls Police Department have partnered for more that 20 years with GFPD providing police services on a contract basis.

This contract is a continuation of that partnership and GFPS pays the city quarterly for an annual cost of $353,469.75 for the four officers to operate in district schools.

Local officials discuss training, police funding, changes in response to calls for reform

According to the contract, which is available in the commission agenda documents, the “mission of the SRO program is the reduction and prevention of school-related violence and crimes committed by juveniles and young adults and to build relationships between law enforcement and the youth community. The SRO program aims to create and maintain safe, secure and orderly learning environments for students, teachers and staff. The SRO’s will serve as a positive role model to instill in students good moral standards, good judgment and discretion, respect for others, and a sincere concern for the school community. The SRO’s will promote citizen awareness of the law to enable students to become better-informed and effective citizens, while empowering students with the knowledge of law enforcement efforts and obligations regarding enforcement, as well as consequences for violations of the law. The SRO’s can serve as confidential sources of informal counseling for students and parents concerning problems they face, as well as providing information on community resources available to them.”

In June, Capt. John Schaffer of the GFPD told The Electric that in 2013, the SROs were told to keep track of their counseling time, which they continue to do. In 2015, they started tracking how many people were counseled and how many were cited.

“Our kids stay out of the criminal justice system 90 percent of the time if they have interaction with an SRO,” he said.

GFPD officers in schools provide annual report to school board

And those that don’t can go into the juvenile diversion program instead of going to court, he said.

Of those students who get cited, 96 percent don’t reoffend, Schaffer said.

GFPS launching alternative to expulsion with grants

Last year, the ACLU of Montana released a report finding that Native American students faced higher discipline rates. The Great Falls school district took issue with some of the findings but also said it was reviewing the report to improve the SRO program.

In July 2019, Capt. Jeff Newton of GFPD briefed the school board on the SRO program and said that for the 2018-2019 school year, SROs investigated 660 complaints in GFPS, which was largely attributed to a zero tolerance on the increased usage of vaping among students.

The previous year, the SROs investigated 572 complaints, Newton said. The all time high was 836 complaints seven years ago, he said during the July 2019 meeting.

Those 660 complaints included assaults, disorderly conducts, thefts, vandalism, narcotics related incidents, runaways, truancies, minor in possession (alcohol/tobacco) and trespasses.

Most of those complaints did not rise to the level of being assigned case numbers, Newton said.

“In most instances, criminal citations were used as a last course of action in an investigation as we attempted to intervene in partnership as educators, informal counselors and then as law enforcement officers. Each SRO uses their training and experience when exercising discretion as to the best course of action for each incident. This often times takes place with a partnership with school administration and with support from the families of the students they serve,” according to the 2019 SRO report submitted to GFPS.

The 2018-2019 school year was the third that the SROs fully implemented the juvenile diversion program, which is based on a national model working with certain juvenile offenders by offering an alternative to the court system, Newton said in July 2019.

During the 2018-2019 school year, 62 students entered the diversion program and 61 completed it successfully, Newton told the school board on Monday.

Of those 62 students in the program, only four reoffended, he said.

It’s a “very powerful tool,” Newton said, for keeping students who make mistakes out of the criminal justice system.

Newton said last summer that the school administration is involved in the interview process for SRO positions to ensure officers are a good fit for working in the schools.

The SROs are also involved in training GFPS employees on the response to armed intruders and to date, 603 district staff have attended the training, Newton said in July 2019. They’ve also involved Great Falls College MSU and Benefis Health System in the training, as well as Sletten Construction since they’re working on many school projects currently.

SROs have also helped with designs for the new schools or making environmental changes to existing facilities to minimize threats, such as moving planters, shrubs, or other hiding spots, and assisted in placing security cameras.

Newton told the school board that during the last school year, SROs met with 1,747 students, totaling more than 410 hours of guidance on a variety of topics such as school, family or personal issues.

“This informal counseling time is one of the most valuable resources SRO’s can offer to students. Most of the time, these informal counseling sessions prevented an incident from escalating or referring the student to more appropriate services offered within the community,” according to the SRO report provided to the school board.

Of the 1,747 students who reached out to their SRO for guidance, only 162 students, or 9.2 percent, were cited or entered the diversion program. That’s up slightly from 152 the year prior, according to Newton’s presentation in July 2019.

Responses at elementary schools were 261 and up over the previous year. Newton said suspicious calls had increased, but said that was a good thing because it meant people were paying attention and reporting anything that didn’t look right, giving GFPD a chance to investigate.

Newton said SROs also handle a number of other tasks including: work with the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, crisis intervention, welfare checks, review custody paperwork and provide security at school related events, as well as answer calls during non-duty hours to assist other GFPD members.

“They’re always present, always there,” Newton said.

The Great Falls SRO program has become a model nationwide that other communities look to for guidance, he said.