February 12, 2021
By Kathie Ragsdale
Nicole E. Rodler, chair of the New Hampshire Juvenile Court Diversion Network, calls school resource officers (SROs) “the gatekeepers” of the juvenile diversion system.
While their exact roles vary by school district and police department, SROs are generally tasked with keeping school campuses secure, protecting staff and students, mentoring students, and handling in-school juvenile offenses. They are the officers most likely to know the background and circumstances of young offenders because of their frequent contact with them in school (at least during non-pandemic times).
And that, officials say, makes them uniquely qualified to recognize which juvenile suspects might benefit from diversion programs and either refer them for that help or make recommendations for or against diversion when asked by another police or court agency.
“We’re able to talk to the kids on the spot for the most part and get a good feel as to what they’re about,” says Jamey Balint, a school resource officer at Alton Central School and Prospect Mountain High School in Alton, two schools with a combined student population of about 900. “You can’t develop close relationships with all the students but those who really need the extra mother or father figure, we sometimes help fill that role, even if on a temporary, part-time basis.”
“We know the students, we know their background. We’re not just a random juvenile detective,” adds Detective Shannon Jackson, a school resource officer at McLaughlin Middle School in Manchester, which has about 720 students.
Brian Trefrey, who handles juvenile issues for the Nashua Police Department’s Special Investigations Unit, says, “SROs fit into the system because we’ll encourage their recommendations if they know the kid.”
But not all students in New Hampshire have equal access to SROs and even those who do might find their cases handled differently depending on which community they live in or where their offense occurred.
New Hampshire has roughly 101 school resource officers, according to Michelle Clarke, coordinator for the Governor’s School Safety Preparedness Task Force. Meanwhile, it has some 505 public schools, including 44 public charter schools, the state Department of Education says, meaning one SRO for every five public schools, with most based in the southern part of the state.
Diversion programs, and the people who facilitate them, also vary by community.
All SROs in Manchester are detectives. Elsewhere, they may be retired former full-time officers now working part-time as SROs, like Balint, formerly a patrol sergeant in Rochester.
Some are paid by police departments; others, by school districts.
In some locales, officers refer prospective diversion candidates to a prosecutor. In Rochester, that person is Lt. Anne M. Gould, who works closely with Rodler. Lt. Gould works closely with Rodler to determine which cases proceed. In others locales, police may refer candidates directly to a diversion program.
Some departments consider the diversion programs in neighboring communities so inferior they refuse to make referrals there, preferring to keep a juvenile in their local system even if he or she doesn’t live there, or lives there but offended elsewhere.
“There is absolutely no standardization of the program, which is why we don’t farm our kids out anymore,” says Gould, who cites the case of one teen who committed an offense in Rochester but lived 45 minutes away. “We farmed him out to another diversion program and the kid didn’t finish, they didn’t let us know and by then it was too late to charge him with a crime. It just fell absolutely flat, which is not the purpose of a diversion program.”
“Once we got burned we will never extend out any of our cases,” Gould continued. “For that lack of communication and for it to be just left like that, that showed me it was a person who didn’t give a crap.”
Referring juveniles to other programs “would be less work on our part,” she adds, “but we (she and Rodler) both are pretty passionate about the purpose behind the system, the rehabilitation of kids. When you’re not held accountable for anything, no rehabilitation is going on. When no one takes you to task, how do these kids learn from it?”
The percentage of youths referred for diversion by SROs statewide is another unknown, as many of those cases are lumped with the other diversion recommendations within police departments.
Nor is data available on how often SROs handle in-school offenses without recommending either diversion or court action – instead relying on practices like “warn, counsel and release” for minor infractions.
“The SRO’s position is a very complicated one in the schools,” says Rodler. “It’s very important to keep confidence in the officers, that counsel and release is effective, and that’s what they’re finding nationally, that the majority of juveniles out-age delinquency. They just stop. If you’re a teenager, your impulsivity is not under control. You do dumb things.”
The willingness of parents to work with youngsters in diversion programs is another variable cited by SROs. If the parents don’t meet their part of the terms agreed to in the diversion plan, their kids are likely to end up in court – even if the kids have been holding up their share of the bargain.
Balint says he has had a few cases that have been referred back to court because of parents not cooperating with the diversion plan they agreed to. “It’s unfortunate because the kids are pretty good kids,” he says. “They’re just making stupid mistakes and a lot of it has to do with the home front.”
School resource officers in Nashua and Manchester are also involved in a program meant to prevent hostile encounters between young people and police from developing in the first place. The Mirror Project seeks to build good relationships between officers and students through things like role-reversal play acting, where students are the police and vice-versa in a made-up situation like a fight in a park.
“With our kids, the ones most apt to be called down to the principal’s office turn out to be the ones most involved, who interact most, in that program,” says Jackson.
Sgt. Anthony DeLuca, a school resource officer at Rochester Middle School, points out that SROs typically consider themselves part of a team, and work with everyone from principals to school guidance counselors to keep youngsters out of the juvenile justice system and to provide education on things like good decision-making and the dangers of drug use.
“Most of the time it (diversion) is going to work if the kids and the parents want it to work,” he adds. “If I got into trouble at that age, I’d be praying for a program like this.”
Diane Casale, coordinator for the Greater Derry Juvenile Diversion Program – serving Derry, Londonderry, Salem, Chester, Windham, Sandown, Atkinson, Plaistow and Auburn — agrees.
“They’re a very important part of the justice system,” she says of SROs. “They’re the first in line. We have the opportunity to work with youth and keep them out of the system and why would we not want to do that?”
Granite State News Collaborative Restorative Justice Project
Over the past six months, the Granite State News Collaborative, in collaboration with the Bar News and the Monadnock Ledger Transcript, has been working on a series that explores restorative justice and court diversion in New Hampshire. Future articles in this series will focus on adult court diversion programs and a comparison between New Hampshire’s and Vermont’s programs. These articles will be published in the coming months as part of an ongoing project that examines and seeks solutions for issues of race and diversity in New Hampshire.
For more information, contact Melanie Plenda.