Budgeting decisions are being shaped now for the coming fiscal year in Missoula, and one of the city’s most popular programs may be cut as a result.
The Missoula Police Department’s School Resources Officers have been funded by a federal block grant for the last three years, and that money runs out in June. The city—and police department—will have to find an alternative way to fund the two officers who spend their time in the schools around the district or the program will disappear.
“It’s a high priority for us,” says Assistant Chief of Police Bob Weaver. “Outside of responding to calls for service, it’s at the top of the list. But we may not be able to continue it.”
The School Resource Officer program grew out of the former DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program. That program ended but the need and desire for officers in the schools interacting with students in positive ways did not. The block grant has funded a much wider range of activities with the officers working mainly in the middle schools as teachers, mentors and investigators when the need arises.
Two full-time officers, Tom Johnson and Casey Gunner, work in the schools. Between them they have more then 26 years experience as police officers. They are sworn officers with full investigatory and arrest powers, as well as being trained instructors.
For more than 30 years, Missoula police officers have been involved with the schools, Weaver says. “This all started when folks like Doug Chase, Roy Hughes and Don Millhouse used to volunteer time to spend in schools and on playgrounds. We’ve always had a strong presence and a positive one. Kids feel they can talk to our officers, that they are approachable.”
The MPD will try to find ways to continue funding the officers in schools, Weaver says. “It’s like a lynching when we think about withdrawing the officers. The parents really support the program and so do the teachers.”
In Great Falls, the school district funds the officers-in-schools program and the Missoula Police Department is negotiating with Missoula County Public Schools to see if it can assist with future funding.
“We’re talking about it, but they have financial constraints too,” Weaver says. “We don’t want to end the program if we can find an alternative. There’s been no final decision on anything yet.”