Saftey A1

Hal Richardson, a school resource officer, poses for a photo in 2019 at Bozeman High School.

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Bozeman city commissioners this week approved an agreement to continue to assist in providing school resource officers to Bozeman School District after debating the transparency with the contract and its length.

Commissioners approved funding of the school resource officer positions when passing the Fiscal Year 2022 budget in June, but were tasked with voting on a five-year agreement with the school district on Tuesday to continue the program. Though commissioners eventually voted 4-1 to approve the agreement, they debated whether the contract should be looked at annually.

Commissioner Christopher Coburn — the lone vote against the agreement — introduced an amendment to change the contract to an annual basis, saying the public should have a chance to provide input on the program and its effectiveness more often.

Coburn clarified that his issue isn’t whether he supports school resource officers, called SROs, but whether they should be approved with a five-year contract.

He also raised questions on how the program’s effectiveness is measured.

“It seems to me that we would really want to know if this program was inadvertently perpetuating the criminalization of poverty by looking at how do SROs interact with low income students in an objective way. Same thing for race or gender or ability, we don’t have those metrics,” Coburn said. “I have a fear that the next time we’re going to have this conversation, it’s going to be in five years, and I think that’s a major disservice to our community.”

Courtney Smith, speaking on behalf of the Montana Racial Equity Project, also encouraged the commission to look at the contract annually rather than every five years, citing the importance of looking at the efficacy of the program as it relates to disparities that can exist in SRO programs.

All four other commission members voted against Coburn’s amendment to change the contract to an annual basis.

Deputy Mayor Terry Cunningham said he thinks changing it to a one-year contract could signal a level of unpredictability to the school district on the issue.

In response to questions, City Manager Jeff Mihelich said a one-year contract could impact recruiting staff members due to uncertainty of the program’s future or could complicate budgeting for the program. He noted that the contract calls for an annual review of its terms and does include a clause allowing it to be terminated with 60 days notice.

The city and the school district could develop some metrics to measure the success or failure of the program, which could be presented to the commission yearly, Mihelich said.

The district pays half of the annual wages and benefits for the five school resource officers, according to the contract.

Commissioner Jennifer Madgic said she supports an annual assessment of the contract.

“I’m hoping that we can have the best of both worlds by signing the five-year contract, but allowing that annual assessment that is indeed transparent, and made available to the public,” Madgic said.

Several Bozeman School District officials spoke in support of the contract during public comment, including interim Superintendent Casey Bertram.

SROs are involved in crime prevention, responding to school-related crimes or incidents involving students, like theft, drug possession or distribution, child neglect and abuse, cyberbullying, custodial interference and domestic violence, among others, Bertram said.

Marilyn King, deputy superintendent of instruction for the district, said SROs are a positive part of the school climate.

“Students’ safety needs play a critical role in achieving student success,” King said. “Students must feel socially, emotionally and physically safe in the classroom.”

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Nora Shelly can be reached at nshelly@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2607.

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