CONCORD — Moira O’Neill, director of the New Hampshire Office of Child Advocate, told members of the Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency that schools need social workers more than police officers.
“We have to be very careful about normalizing the expectation of criminality and violence in children’s lives,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill gave testimony Wednesday to the commission as it is examining how police in the state interact with members of the public. The commission is set to report recommendations on police community relations to Gov. Chris Sununu in the coming weeks.
One of the topics it is examining is the use of school resource officers, police officers assigned to duties inside a school.
O’Neill, the state’s first director of the Office of Child Advocate, said children by and large do not want officers in their schools.
During a recent children’s summit sponsored by Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, children said they wanted more therapists in schools, as well as more resources for their teachers and parents.
“Children did not ask for more police officers,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill said that instead of uniformed officers in school, more therapists and social workers can make a difference for children. These employees could help children and their families get services they need.
While some children like having police officers in school, O’Neill said those are usually children who do not have regular interactions with police. For children who have been in trouble themselves, or who have seen their parents get into legal trouble, police officers in school can be traumatizing.
“They’re not comfortable with police in that environment,” O’Neill said.
Uniformed police officers in school also set an expectation that the school assumes children will be causing trouble that requires the intervention of law enforcement, she said.
O’Neill said police need to be trained in childhood development so that they know how to respond appropriately to children. Racial bias can create stress and trauma for children that can impact them developmentally, and police should be educated about that, she said. Police officers also need to be able to know how to respond to the families of children who might be experiencing a crisis that involves law enforcement.
O’Neill told the commission members that a regional, interdisciplinary approach could work. In Concord, there is a collaborative for police, social workers, healthcare professionals who meet in order to deal with children who are known to be exposed to drug addiction.
“It builds understanding and helps deal with the disparities people are seeing,” she said.
The collaborative approach allows the professionals to share resources and information in order to better help the children in need. O’Neill said police should make an effort to keep children out of the criminal justice system.
The commission is scheduled to begin deliberations this month on police discipline once the public interaction portion is done. The commission has already sent Sununu a report suggesting changes to the way police officers are trained to include training on racial biases. Sununu has already said he will push for most of those recommendations.