BRATTLEBORO — School resource officers (SROs) are no longer a presence at Brattleboro Union High School, prompting activists opposing law enforcement in schools to celebrate and Windham County Sheriff Mark Anderson to term it a “hasty decision.”
After a March 17 meeting of the board's Social Justice Committee, Windham Southeast School District (WSESD) Superintendent Andrew Skarzynski and BUHS Principal Steve Perrin decided to cancel all SROs for the remainder of this school year.
Recent community criticism of the presence of SROs - armed law enforcement officers in uniform from the Windham County Sheriff's Office - indicated “the need to stop, pause, and listen,” said Skarzynski, who has named a restorative justice consultant from Rutland County as an outsider who will facilitate a community conversation process.
At the March 16 Windham Southeast School District (WSESD) school board meeting attendees heard Skarzynski say the matter of retaining SROs at the school would be turned over to the school Leadership Council and that SROs would remain as their presence was evaluated.
School Board Chair David Schoales said the decision came after hearing again from many Youth4Change (Y4C) activists on March 17.
Their response, as was Schoales', is happy.
“As you all know, Y4C aims to create safer schools and a safer community for all youth. We've spoken and we've been heard!” reads the group's Facebook post.
“It's a great relief,” said Schoales, who had pointed out several times at the March 16 meeting that while the school board is the governing body, administrators are charged with making decisions such as those regarding SROs in school.
During the March 16 meeting, an attendee asked specifically about March 17 meeting agenda and was told that the issue would not be formally addressed, but that comments would also not be forbidden.
“And that is exactly what happened,” said Schoales this week.
“On Wednesday, the Social Justice Committee of the board met and a number in attendance came from Youth4Change and made a very strong case for the Leadership Council not being the best structure, the most welcome, or having the capacity to deal with the issue,” he said.
He said the superintendent and principal “decided that the gradual process would not be useful and to suspend the resource officer for the rest of the year to remove that issue.”
They will undertake what Schoales called “a community conversation around the broad relationship among the school and students and the police [...] and to educate all and make them better relationships.”
To Anderson, it is not.
“I disagree with the removal of a school resource officer,” the sheriff said on March 23. “I believe this is a hasty decision that doesn't contemplate all aspects of the program and the effects that an unplanned removal will have.”
“It pains me to hear the lived experiences members of our community have had with law enforcement,” Anderson said. “It is my hope that the school's process can help illuminate these experiences.”
But he said it is also “vital to consider the needs of the entire school community regarding student safety and access to their education.”
The sheriff believes that “the community needs to have a detailed conversation with all school stakeholders to examine the program supported by our local data.”
“It has been the goal of the School Resource Officer program in Brattleboro to ensure access to education and safety to all students, staff, and faculty at the school, which I believe we have done,” Anderson said. “My office looks forward to the process that Superintendent Skarzynski set forth using an impartial outside facilitator to objectively examine the School Resource Officer program.”
'We did not arrive at this decision lightly'
“Brattleboro Union High School [BUHS] has four core values that we use to inform decisions and shape our goals as a school community,” wrote Principal Steve Perrin in a memo to staff and board members. “These core values are respect, relevance, responsibility, and community. As we have listened carefully to the criticisms regarding the use of a School Resource Officer at BUHS, we have paused to consider these concerns through the lens of community and respect.
“After hearing alumni and adults express their concerns about the presence of the School Resource Officer, we have come to the decision that we will be suspending the School Resource Officer program for the 2021-2022 school year, pending a larger review of the position.”
The principal went on to say he and Skarzynski “did not arrive at this decision lightly.”
Perrin acknowledged the role of SROs in providing on-the-scene response in case of “a violent intruder in or near the school,” a role that sheriff's department personnel have trained for in years past.
The principal also acknowledged the functions and service to the school community that the officers have provided, calling the program “an important part of our student support structure.”
“We recognize that having an armed law enforcement presence on campus is difficult for some students. That is contrary to our goal of creating a learning environment that is comfortable for all students and staff,” he said.
“We also recognize that there are community members who value the presence of the SRO, feel safe with them present, and use them for student and family support on a regular basis,” Perrin added in the memo. “One of the goals of our review will be to examine how we can balance these two important community needs. That is not a process that can be completed in a short time.”
“We came to the conclusion that in these dynamic times, the presence of the SRO was to prevent our ultimate goal of engaging in dialogue on how we can most effectively build relationships with our community, including local law enforcement,” Skarzynski said.
'Not about good and bad apples, but about systems'
Supporters of the presence of SROs at the high school believed the deputies helped students connect with needed resources in and out of the school building.
Opponents, including Youth4Change, wanted SROs removed right away, saying their presence is “costly, ineffective, and discriminatory,” proving overall to be more harmful than beneficial, especially to students of color, in the LGBTQ+ community, and those “psychiatrically labeled.”
They proposed redirecting funds for the program - about $40,000 in the operating budget - to hire more trained and licensed mental health professionals, improve the school's existing restorative justice program, and offer staff members more trauma training.
At the March 16 meeting, school board member Liz Adams of Putney was curious about what trauma-informed training for teachers and administrators currently exists, saying she had been “alarmed” when the subject was raised by BUHS graduates at a previous meeting.
“Reaching out to former students would also be good,” Adams said. “I worry about kids not wanting to come forward, worried about retaliation. I'm not saying that happens; I'm saying that could be a concern for some students.”
Kurt Daims, director of Brattleboro Common Sense, a civic nonprofit that encourages local activism on a variety of issues, offered a possible alternative.
“I would like to offer, in the spirit of compromise, the possibility of letting the officers do their SRO stints without their weapons,” he said, “The young people - especially people of color - they see the gun, that's a trigger for them. That's scary for them.”
A similar recommendation was recently endorsed by the Brattleboro Selectboard as part of a community safety report developed by a committee studying public safety resources.
BUHS Diversity Coordinator Mikaela Simms spoke at the close of the March 16 meeting, saying she had intended only to listen, but felt she would be “remiss” not to offer a remark.
She suggested the same denouement to which administrators came after the March 17 meeting: that the issue is larger than SROs in schools and requires more exploration about the relationships among schools, police, and community.
“Over the years, I can say for sure that many students have been in my office upset about things that have happened at the school in regard to security or the SRO over the years, and I think this conversation is not about good and bad apples but about systems,” Simms said.
She added that she believes it is key to “hold the complication about what it means for some people to be safe and looking at how we can keep all the kids safe” and how to determine processes that do not “adjudicate our most vulnerable students.”
Simms said that in addition to the SRO issue, folks should think about what it means to call police about a student during a school incident, about what the relationship between the school and police department is in general, and about repercussions, even when an officer is sent to a student's home for a wellness check.
She advocated looking at the broader impact the relationship with police and SROs have on students and families in the community.
“We're all exposed to images of people who look like us being harmed; I was stopped by the police recently, and I felt nauseous,” she said.
Simms recommended that the group think of all these points of contact as the process unfolds and “how we can protect our students going forward as they go into the world.”
The superintendent hopes that the parties will “enter into purposeful, meaningful, and thoughtful discussion on our ultimate goal of building these bridges.”
“It is clear that we have members of our community who feel that the presence of an armed officer is both triggering prior trauma and preventing any further relationship from being built,” Skarzynski added. “Because of this, we needed to take faster action in order to create the space for this dialogue to occur.”
Skarzynski continued to say he has spoken with a former colleague, Lisa Ryan of Rutland, who has served on the Vermont Commission on Women and as program manager of the Rutland County Community Justice Center.
Perrin said community conversations will still be based through the school Leadership Council, composed of students, parents, teachers, one administrator, and one school board member. All meetings are open to the public, although none has yet been scheduled.
“While it was initially proposed that we retain an SRO on campus during the review, we do feel it would be more appropriate for our school community to remove the SRO until that process is completed,” he said. “Our administrative and safety staff will need to make several adjustments to our processes and safety plan before the next school year starts.
“We will also need to consider ways we can adjust our student support services to compensate for the loss of the SRO on a daily basis. While we have not resolved all of these details, we do know we will be seeking a licensed educator to take on a student and family engagement role. We will adjust some of our planning and logistics as well as we prepare for next year.”
Initially, Skarzynski said the review and recommendation process would take until December but now believes a potential summary report will likely be ready prior to budgeting season in the late fall.
He noted the work is being undertaken at the same time as a number of other challenges - not the least of which is planning how to bring students back into schools next year full time.
“We want to make sure we hear all voices,” he said.