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Can law enforcement coexist with education in schools?

Educators have mixed feelings about school resource officers

TOWNSHEND—Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark takes issue with the administration at the Windham Central Supervisory Union (WCSU) for not renewing its commitment to a four-year school resource officer (SRO) program, paid for by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice for the first three years.

Leland & Gray Middle and High School in Townshend participated in the program for 2½ years, employing several uniformed and armed deputies from the sheriff’s office in Newfane. The program’s latest hire, Albry Crowley, also serves in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and recently deployed to Afghanistan.

School officials decided to discontinue the program when Crowley left in January, citing budget constraints, as well as hinting at other causes.

They had already decided not to participate for a fourth year, according to Clark. That is when the district would have had to pay the full price for the SRO’s salary, approximately $42,000.

Clark says he is constrained by the WCSU decision because it limits his ability to hire other federally funded personnel for the 18 months left on the original agreement with Leland & Gray, according to the complex rules of budgeting at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

School resource officers have been present in Vermont schools for more than 20 years as school districts and law-enforcement agencies reacted to nationally publicized school violence episodes and, more recently, the sometimes deadly toxicity associated with bullying.

While some studies have shown that youth violence in schools is actually diminishing, the enormous publicity over the 1999 Columbine massacre and other episodes, including the murders of two women teachers at Vermont’s Essex Elementary School in 2006, provided impetus to harness the strengths of law enforcement and school communities in an effort to combat destructive impulses.

After the federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act became law in 1994, authorizing the spending of $8.8 billion over six years, the DOJ created the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) to distribute and monitor the money.

In that first year, COPS launched new acronym-friendly programs (Funding Accelerated for Smaller Towns, or FAST, and Making Officer Redeployment Effective, or MORE). COPS also awarded $200 million to 392 agencies for 2,700 additional “community policing professionals.”

While school resource officers have been around for more than 20 years, it was the community policing innovation that eventually gave birth to the expanded SRO movement in Vermont. The SRO program grew incrementally as COPS offered grants to school districts all over the state.

This brings the narrative to Windham County and to the many citizens, familiar with the SRO program in the county and all over the state, who have many opinions about its effectiveness.

A matter of priorities

It was a COPS grant that funded the Windham Central SRO at Leland & Gray.

Leland & Gray Principal Dorinne Dorfman, now in her second year on the job, came to the school when the SRO program was in its second year.

“I fully expected [Crowley] to stay,” Dorfman said, adding that there was a “wide diversity of opinion” about the program.

She said that in the fall she worked with administrators “to determine what would best suit our needs” and decided if the program were to continue, the SRO’s hours would be “much reduced.”

After Crowley left, the administration decided to halt the program entirely.

School staff then concluded that working with a fee-for-service contract with the county sheriff, covering certain sports events, dances, and truancy, would better serve the school.

“It’s more important to protect the positions of the faculty and staff, who can calm things down, instead of police action,” Dorfman said. “I look at behavior records, and we have pretty open communication, so I’m privy to the level of danger, and I do not believe it warrants a full-time SRO.”

She said also that “If we had a risky student, we would hire a para-educator, someone who would handle the student pedagogically rather than criminally. We’re providing education, and an SRO can’t do that.”

Windham Central Superintendent Steven John said he appreciated that “SROs have worked very well in some locations. The difficulty that Leland & Gary faced was finding a good match over the long term,” he said, noting that the school had hired several SROs over the life of the grant.

He explained that many meetings had taken place, nearly 10 years ago, during which faculty councils and student councils expressed support and doubts.

“What’s going on illegally behind the scenes is going to happen, whether we have an SRO or not,” John said.

He emphasized that the source of a lot of school conflict resides in the home and other locations.

“Are we more, or less, susceptible to crime when there is an SRO on the scene?” he asked.

“The school has a much higher responsibility to student rights,” he emphasized, and noted that experience suggested that most conflict in schools can be handled by staff who know the students.

“They [SRO’s] can easily drift over to their other role” — law enforcement officers — even when it might not be necessary, he said.

Citing budget matters, John said, “It’s a tradeoff, let’s say, between another English teacher or an SRO. Is this a moral issue?”

“We have very high expectations here,” he added. “And after you’ve tried four different people [as SROs], you begin to wonder.”

Two Leland & Gray students particularly liked Deputy Crowley.

Junior Bailey Whelchel, 16, of Newfane, a school assembly leader, said, “She was really nice. But we don’t have a lot of violence and what we do have is manageable.”

“We do have a drug problem and a lot of teachers turn a blind eye to students passing stuff in hallways,” he said, noting that the presence of an SRO might deter the drug activity.

Sophomore Kaleigh Maskell, an aspiring singer who will perform in an upcoming assembly, thought the school probably was safer with an SRO on campus.

“But it’s hard for her to be everywhere at once,” said Maskell, who added that she viewed Crowley almost as a friend. “I don’t mind a uniformed person with a gun in school.”

Mentioning a serious fight between two male students in early January that was broken up by a teacher and brought the sheriff and the state police to the school (see sidebar) Whelchel thinks a trained officer, like an SRO, would be better equipped to handle such episodes.

Another event that reportedly upset some students related to the removal of a student from a ceramics class and the subsequent surprise search of backpacks in the room.

When it was pointed out that school staff had handled both of those interruptions, Whelchel said, “Come to think of it, we handled both incidents very well.”

Nevertheless, he was 100 percent in favor of the SRO program.

Whelchel remembered once when he asked Crowley if it was all right to bring parachute cord to school. “She told me it was fine, and then she taught me a few knots,” he said.

Both students said the presence of Crowley on campus changed their attitude about police in general. Whelchel said the presence of the SRO “personified” police in general for him, and for Maskell, the officer’s position served the same purpose.

“I can imagine having a heart-to-heart talk with Officer Crowley,” she said.

Different experiences

Of the schools within the four school unions in Windham County — Windham Northwest, Windham Central, Windham Southwest, and Windham Southeast — only Brattleboro Union High School in the Windham Southeast retains an SRO.

BUHS has the largest enrollment of the high schools within the four unions, just short of 1,000 students, or triple the respective populations of the other union high schools.

Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley is much in favor of the SRO program as it is practiced in his district and has high praise for Deputy Sheriff Tom Dougherty, who for about three years has covered Brattleboro Union High School, the middle school, and the Windham Regional Career Center.

“He is very effective,” Stahley says. “He has a real interest in students and he is clearly qualified. He has a really good background: he was a New York City policeman, and I believe he has a degree in elementary education. Right now, he is teaching a law-enforcement class at the Career Center.”

The district has had an SRO for about 10 years, Stahley said, initially contracting with the Brattleboro Police and now with the Windham County Sheriff.

He also said the supervisory union’s share of Dougherty’s salary, about $38,000, is now part of the annual budget. The officer also receives compensation from the Career Center.

BUHS Principal Steve Perrin concurs with Stahley. “He visits classrooms and he sits in the cafeteria. The kids ask him legal questions about search and seizure. He can be a really positive influence.”

Bellows Falls Union High School, which serves 300-plus students, experienced the school resource officer program differently.

“The way it was originally presented to the [school] board, grants paid for all of it. There was no cost,” said Windham Northeast Superintendent Christopher Kibbe, who became superintendent in July of 2011 and served as assistant superintendent for nearly two years before that.

“As we went along, the arrangement was that part of the cost shifted to the school district. Then the question was, do we really need an SRO in a tiny rural school?”

The SRO program was discontinued two years ago.

“We don’t have gangs roaming the halls, and, at the board level, debate arose about [whether] this was a good way to allocate resources,” he continued.

And, Kibbe said, the interaction with students was mixed.

According to the superintendent, the SROs “seemed to have only one tool, and that was to arrest.”

“So that begs the question: When you have an incident, do you want to deal with it as [a school-level] discipline, or as a police matter?” he said.

Kibbe explained that ideally, the presence of an SRO builds relationships and greater respect for the law.

But “on the down side, in a quiet high school, you’ve got a police officer waiting for something to happen,” he said.

“There were altercations between students, and, because the SRO intervened, it rose to a criminal matter, rather than a school-level [incident],” Kibbe said, recalling that the questions “got fuzzy about when school is supposed to take over — these are dicey issues.”

BFUHS Principal Christopher Hodsden confirmed much of the superintendent’s narrative, setting out issues that more or less define the arguments used by people who feel uncomfortable with the SRO program.

“The SRO serves two masters and probably feels more confident serving his law-enforcement duties,” Hodsden said. “This was the principle dilemma for the school board.”

Police officers are duty-bound to act when they see infractions, unlike principals, whom the law gives “more latitude to decide that it’s not a crime but [a matter of] safety,” he said.

Hodsden said that he, as principal, had a “different attitude than someone in uniform.”

He also speculated, for example, that if a theft took place and a SRO is on campus and the principal intervenes, “Does that mean I am acting as an agent of the police?”

The danger of criminalizing all infractions also disturbs Hodsden. He said he was not bothered by the uniform or the gun, but understands that it gave some people the feeling that something was wrong.

Hodsden said that all these issues, “including the grant running out,” served to convince the board to abandon the program, but he concedes that the decision “left a bad taste in people’s mouths.”

Fayneese Miller, dean of the college of education and social services at the University of Vermont, also serves as the chair of the state Board of Education.

Speaking as an educator and private person, and not on behalf of the state Board of Education, Miller said that when it comes to SROs, “a lot depends on what the purpose is.”

“If it’s more about community relations and interactions [between young people and police], it can be seen as positive, and can denote safety rather than fear.”

But “if you have a gun, it’s going to be used,” she said, describing the possible effect on students.

“For some young people, [the presence of a SRO] sends a message that something is wrong,” Miller continued.

“If you have a personable officer, the effect is positive,” she said. And if you don’t, she said, the opposite is true, adding that a lot depends on the culture of a school.

Miller said context is everything, but society has to look at different ways of keeping order in schools.

Personally, she is not opposed to the idea of SROs, but “I’m not in favor of having uniformed and armed officers in the schools,” she said.

Tops in his field

Corporal Mark Moody is a star in the SRO firmament, negotiating and networking in the Montpelier schools for more than 15 years, known statewide as a passionate spokeman for the program. There’s nothing he cannot tell you about local, state, and national SRO groups — from training programs, training instructions, news stories, history, events, you name it.

And nearly everyone contacted from those organizations knows about Moody.

“I went from DARE [Drug Abuse Resistance Education] in about 1993-94,” said Moody. “I do all three schools [in Montpelier] and work on a variety of problems: truancy, a problem kid in an elderly neighborhood.”

Moody said he uses a “holistic” approach by taking measures that run the gamut.

“If you’re dealing with these baseline behaviors, prevention usually works,” he said. “I get to talk about kids with teachers.”

“When we started, people really questioned what we were doing,” he said. “Then they changed their minds.”

Moody emphasized the deterrence effect of an SRO presence.

After Tropical Storm Irene, he said, “the police department pulled me out for one month. Wallet thefts went up 98 percent.”

He says he also acts as a deterrent with kids “whose families are engaging in potentially criminal behavior.”

He’s also a big fan of restorative justice. He described an incident relating to partying and drinking.

“Instead of going to court, we hosted a conference, and people were crying, hugging, apologizing.”

Networking, Moody says, is part if his secret. He thinks of himself as a “social worker with a badge, or outreach with authority. We can plug in.”

Moody grew up in Saranac Lake, N.Y., where he went to high school. He later went to North Country Community College, where he earned a degree in psychology. He’s about to turn 55 and he’s been a policeman for “34-and-a-half years.”

Moody points out that he also is “creating a liaison back to the cops,” which lets him “tap into all the support services.”

That back and forth between SROs and students is frequently cited as a major benefit of the program.

And that’s why Sheriff Keith Clark remains disappointed by the Windham County schools that did not renew their SRO programs.

“Kids began to see law enforcement as a positive thing, a way to resolve problems long term,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #139 (Wednesday, February 15, 2012).

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