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School resource officer proponents launch social media campaign

by Derrick Perkins Western News
| March 3, 2020 10:17 AM

Education and law enforcement officials have pledged to do more legwork before asking voters to again consider hiring a resource officer for the Libby School District.

A little more than three months out from the May ballot, that effort includes a Facebook page and professionally shot video touting the benefits of bringing a school resource officer aboard. Libby Police Chief Scott Kessel, featured in the promotional video, said Flathead Electric Cooperative is supporting the social media campaign. That includes technical advice on the video and suggestions on how to reach out to voters, he said.

“Flathead Electric believes strongly in the program and wants to try again,” Kessel said in an interview last week. “They are willing to try and contribute one last time to the Libby community.”

The utility cooperative is behind the effort in more ways than just supporting the outreach campaign. Flathead Electric’s offer of more than $100,000 over five years to help pay for the position spurred local officials to ask voters to permanently fund the job. The grant money would come out of the cooperative’s unclaimed capital credits.

The grant, which has been used in neighboring jurisdictions for school resource officers, is meant to jumpstart the program. The utility offered it last year, but residents voted 1,141 to 906 against a mill levy to fund the position after grant dollars ran out.

This time around, voters are being asked to pay 50 cents a month for every $100,000 of value of their property for the officer. Critics, though, question the cost of the officer.

Officials said the position will offer a starting salary of $38,776, but Kessel said it costs about $76,016 to field a police officer. That includes $150 for a background check, $480 for a psychiatric exam as well as $800 for a body camera, $1,400 for vests and $2,000 for a laptop, among other expenses.

Similar concerns, though, prompted officials to add a frequently asked questions section to the campaign’s Facebook page last week. The document addresses the need officials see for a resource officer, his or her role in the schools and whether the district ought to arm teachers instead.

Kessel is aware of the opposition to the mill levy — and the idea of fielding a school resource officer in Libby — on local social media. While he will not wade into the ongoing debate online, he said he is happy to sit down and discuss the proposal with residents and community groups.

“The Facebook stuff is out there,” he said. “There is a core group of people who verbalize their opinions on Facebook. I’m willing to talk with anybody in a community group or one-on-one.”

The resource officer will not act as an armed guard for the school district, Kessel said. Though the potential for an active shooter situation at one of the city’s schools remains a concern, it is not the sole reason for dedicating an officer to the district.

“The odds, realistically, on a student resource officer having to go up against an active shooter are not that great,” Kessel said. “When they happen, you want to be prepared, but it’s only a part of this effort. A resource officer will help break some of the bad habits among the student population.”

“Teachers have seen some students go from grade school to county jail to prison,” he said. “My goal for the officer is intervention.”

Given the small student population in town, Kessel expects the resource officer will build relationships with students. Children and teens could go to him or her with problems, like bullying, before the situation escalates, he said.

Local education officials like Superintendent Craig Barringer and School Board Chair Ellen Johnston have argued for the need for the police to have a proactive, rather than reactive, presence in the district.

The goal, when it comes to students headed in the wrong direction, is to “change their mind and direct them down another path,” Kessel said.

The police chief said he understands opposition from property owners, particularly those without children or lots of acreage.

“If you own a lot of property, you’re looking at paying a lot more and I get that,” he said. “The only thing I can say is, what is the value of the children in our community, whether they’re related to you or not?”