BRATTLEBORO — Students do not want a school resource officer (SRO) at Brattleboro Union High School, a student-led survey team reports, saying that having one caused them to make “a prison analogy.”
Windham Southeast School District (WSESD) board members heard the report of students' feelings and recommendations at their April 12 meeting, where emotion ran the gamut.
At least 75 people attended the meeting via Zoom, with a dozen or so more in the room in person.
WSESD Diversity Coordinator Mikaela Simms, a member of the task force, introduced the report, noting the effort started with a February 2021 Youth4Change petition calling to end the SRO program in schools.
Pointing out other petitions in support of SROs, Simms also mentioned many “open discussions” among teachers and students.
Administrators agreed to suspend the program and formed the task force. Former SRO Deputy Sheriff Timmie Vinton was subsequently hired as head of security in a non-police role and is “very well liked,” according to the report.
In the end, however, the report and subsequent discussion went far beyond the issue of having an SRO on campus.
Simms noted the report “highlights the experiences of those most impacted,” saying it is “filled with people's reflections and experiences.”
“It really is about students and their perspectives,” she said.
“It's not just what the majority wants, it's also how everyone is impacted,” Simms said, noting that as the school becomes “more and more diverse,” everyone has to “look at what's good for us as a whole community.”
For eight months, students Z'aire Pacheco-Wright, Habame Scholz-Karabakakis, Imani Namutebi, Lucy Corbin, Kaiya Colby, and Kai Adams - all female - interviewed their peers. They said they didn't bring up the SRO issue per se until and unless the interviewee did so.
“We didn't want to make their answer be biased,” said one student interviewer, adding that when it was brought up, students expressed different opinions. There was no firm “yes” or “no” consensus on having an SRO on campus, but students agreed they did not want an armed officer in the school and noted that having one fostered “a negative environment and a prison analogy.”
The process and questions
BUHS Restorative Justice Coordinator Mike Szostak offered an overview of the executive summary before students reviewed their recommendations.
Szostak noted the group took a “qualitative approach versus a quantitative approach,” finding that the best way to “achieve equity in the research that we did.”
Divided into four subcommittees operating independently of one another, the group came together after the interviews to formulate recommendations.
Areas addressed included:
• SRO history: The students looked at policing in general and the issue of SRO in schools nationally and at BUHS.
• SRO role in Vermont: They looked at other schools and what happened in those places.
• SRO perceptions at BUHS.
• Healthy School Environment: They asked what qualities would contribute to same.
In the end, four recommendations came forth:
• Believing there is now an “effective safety staff” in the high school, the task force suggested that BUHS continue without an SRO.
• The students recommended the possibility of having a “liaison officer,” as some other schools do, determining if there is value in having in place an officer of the Brattleboro Police Department or the Windham County Sheriff's Office or both who is skilled at working with kids and de-escalating situations to call upon if needed.
• The group placed more emphasis on having an “inclusive, school-wide community atmosphere” and recommended more work to make it so.
• They recommended building system-wide practices around accountability and repair when harm is done, addressing systemic biases, and putting more emphasis on mental health supports.
They asked questions that included:
• What would make you feel like you want to be in school?
• What would make school a less stressful environment?
• What would a healthy, safe school look like to you, and what barriers are there for you to that being the case here now?
Task force members reported that many times students expressed they “didn't feel very listened to” or felt they were “not being taken seriously” when they did raise their voices and ask for changes.
They found discipline, threats, and the harassment/suspension processes to feel not always fair, with “harsher consequences” for some - notably, students of color.
Students also brought up “power dynamics” between teachers and students, but more so between students and administrators. The students said they didn't always feel comfortable asking for support, even for homework help.
Students also felt some adults did not reciprocate their respect.
Task force members reported that students especially noted too much staff surveillance in bathrooms by the security staff. Yet at the same time, they noted kids partying and having sex in the restrooms, making them uncomfortable.
Students said hallways are also crowded and create stress and feel unsafe. Congregating in bathrooms and hallways is perhaps a result of the fact that that there is no student lounge or alternate place to get together, and students feel a lack in making student-to-student connections.
They would like “fun things” to do so there's more interaction and a better comfort level with people they see everyday.
Respondents to the survey also noted not even knowing the names of classmates, fostering isolation. They cited Covid-related issues, from masking to adhering or not adhering to requirements to mental health concerns.
Students expressed disparities in suspensions, asserting that students of color face more severe consequences and are provoked more often. Meanwhile, some white students harass others and use racial slurs without punishment.
Offering only one comprehensive sex education course for all sexualities and genitalia was also an issue for students.
“People need to be educated about these issues,” says the report. “Especially adults. Age isn't an excuse.”
Not using counselors enough for mental health support and not seeing counselors reach out sufficiently is another issue raised by students, who said they need to know how to find those resources. They also said a staff member should never “out” a student.
As far as actual school work, some students said teachers value “quantity over quality” and want consideration for how much work is doled out, especially for seniors who are engaged in college applications and more.
The reaction from adults
Board member Tim Maciel started comments, reading from a statement in which he commended the task force for its “diligence over the last eight months.”
He said members considered every aspect of “a complex and important issue” and that he supports their recommendations. He lauded the students for their “remarkable maturity and devotion to their school.”
Maciel called the description in the report of the lack of a healthy, safe environment “alarming” and said it calls for a “redoubling” of efforts to improve.
“For the good of all students,” he asked that the school climate be “closely monitored,” saying, “clearly, more needs to be done.”
“We are all invested in building a healthy campus climate,” Maciel said, noting that the report demands exploring strategies to improve a climate “in need of serious and immediate repair.”
“That was fantastic work,” said board member Lana Dever. “I'm really excited to see your ideas implemented. . .and hoping you'll be a part of the solution as well.”
Windham Regional Career Center Director Nancy Wiese thanked the students, explaining more about the restroom patrol and other issues raised.
She said she has to regularly patrol the bathrooms and is also the person who addresses harassment, bullying, and hazing, as well as Title IX concerns, at the Windham Regional Career Center on the school campus.
“I hate patrolling the bathrooms,” she said, adding that when two students are in a single-person bathroom she has to ensure that whatever is going on is “consensual” and “appropriate to our school.”
Wiese agreed that students don't often know the result of a bullying report “because it's a legal issue” that demands confidentiality.
“It's frustrating for the adults as well,” she said. “I want every student to be valued and heard, and that makes our job incredibly difficult. I really appreciate you bringing those issues to light.”
“We can always do a better job when it comes to community building and community understanding,” she said. “I just waned to make sure that you understood we are in an equally difficult position as administrators as to what we can legally do and legally allow.”
Principal: appreciative, but not entirely happy with process
Principal Steve Perrin emphasized that he appreciates the students' “time, efforts, and thorough work” and said he looks forward to meeting with them as a group to discuss in more detail what can be improved and how.
He acknowledged that the SRO issue “has been divisive in our community for a long time,” adding, “I don't think it needed to be, but it was.”
He said the “desire to create space for candid conversations [opposed to bathrooms and hallways] is one reason the SRO was suspended for the year.”
Perrin said he hopes the report is a first part of a continuing conversation and that he believes an SRO “in some form” has a place in the school.
But Perrin wasn't entirely happy with the process.
While students and “some staff” were well represented on the task force, he said, neither he nor administrators nor safety staff members nor school counselors were invited to the table.
He said inclusion of those groups “would have moved the process along much quicker.”
“I was really troubled by reading an allegation that a sexual assault report was not responded to,” Perrin added. “That bothers me greatly.”
He said is also troubled by hearing “talk” that some groups are “elevated to higher positions than others” and said administrators are following up and trying to cope with Covid challenges while doing more to include all student voices and expand offerings to build spirit and community among students of all types.
“I will never be as fast as Snapchat,” Perrin said, noting he will never be able to get information out faster than rumors but that he has made many efforts to communicate with parents and students better and faster.
“No school is perfect, but as we recover from Covid and the isolation of the past two years, we are making progress. . .and it's progress that needs to continue,” he said.
That's when Dever spoke again, reacting to any defensiveness coming toward the student report.
“I want to take a moment to point out the optics, just the lived experience of what's happening in this room,” she said.
“On the right, I have a group of people in positions of power, who are predominately white and lean toward male. And on the left, I have a group of students of color, predominately women, people who are not white men, right?
Dever said that as the group was listening and taking in the students' presentation, she was “struck by the impulse to counter the information” and “to say 'what we are doing.'”
“What I really would like is if we could take in the stories and sit with them and come from a place of believing,” she continued.
“As to the idea of the administration being involved in the report, I can't imagine how that would have been a good thing,” Dever countered.
“You want students to be able to speak freely. . . to feel safe. . .to hear what they say when we're not around, and that has to be done by students,” she continued. “And we have to take the work and ingest it and believe it and listen before we respond.”
“Especially when we've asked them to do a job and they've done a job,” she added.
“I'm so excited to hear all the things you've said we're doing, Steve, but I wonder why we have to say it without thinking about what they've actually done,” Dever said.
Interim Superintendent Mark Speno called the students' work “courageous.”
“You strike me as young leaders who want to make a change in your school, and that's what we want, that's what we're looking for in our students,” he said, noting the need “to continue to improve as a school community and we're absolutely committed to doing that.”
BUHS alum Mindy Haskins Rogers then spoke via Zoom.
“You've just been given an incredible gift, which is that a bunch of teenagers just told you what they're thinking, feeling, and experiencing,” she told the board. “It's not easy to get that, and they were able to do that because those adults you mentioned were not in the room.”
She thanked Maciel and said she agrees with his call for “immediate repair,” noting her commitment to help survivors who allege a subculture of sexual grooming and worse at the school dating back decades, including at the hands of former teacher Robert Hecker.
“Again, the issue that I'm here on is the sexual abuse issue, and what I know is that for decades nobody listened and there were, especially, men in power who dismissed and talked down what they were told by students,” she said.
Haskins Rogers implored the administrators to “listen to those kids because they just did incredible work for you.”
Wiese: 'outrageously offended' and seeking 'the same respect as students'
That's when Wiese, saying she was going to “step out on a limb,” expressed “how outrageously offended I am by the comments of some board members this evening.”
“I will say I have the absolute deepest respect for the work this group of students has done,” she said. “I am a white, learning-disabled, upper-middle-aged woman in a small Vermont state who runs a CTE [career and technical education] center. That puts me in all kinds of categories.
“I am not a woman of color. I completely accept that you have lived a different life story than I have lived. That does not mean I should be any more marginalized than anyone else in that room or in our communities, and I have been marginalized this evening.
“Steve [Perrin] is a white, middle-class, school administrative, male, who are few and far between in our population even if most of our middle-class, white, male educators are high school principals. I will simply say to you that each of us lives and walks a different life story.
“I was not being defensive in my comments. I was simply agreeing that bathrooms and harassment reports and the lack of ability to report on them are the bane of administrators' existence.”
Wiese went on to note that she spent 45 minutes last fall awaiting Brattleboro police after a gun with ammunition was discovered in a student's car on campus.
“This board needs to understand that we walk a very different life than the board members do. . .to minimize and marginalize what we do as school administrators, to stand up and hold us accountable for something that happened when I was in elementary school,” she said.
“The things that Mr. Hecker, the things that happened at the school and on the campus at that time, are appalling to each and every one of us, and yet every time we speak, we are judged as ineffective and underrated and unacceptable,” she said. “It would not matter if we could walk on the proverbial water.”
“This board has accused us of cronyism,” she charged. “They are distrustful with us, they talk to us in a way that marginalizes all the hard work we do and have done throughout Covid.”
“I am putting my job on the line by saying this this evening, but I will say to you once and only once, and then I will hang it up and not ever say it again, what you do to us on a regular basis is humiliating, belittling, and unprofessional,” Wiese continued.
“To say we could not sit on a committee of students and adults investigating implicit bias and racism within our schools and the SRO discounts who we are as people,” she said.
Wiese said while students and staff members on the task force worked “incredibly hard,” they could have had more information had others been included in the work.
She noted the need for a task force's “understanding of bullying and harassment laws, the issue of parental consent, the issue of if somebody is having sex in our bathrooms and it's not consensual, it's rape.”
“And if we are not inspecting our bathrooms, we are condoning that,” she said.
“This board sits on their seats once a week at this point. They speak to a small, select group of individuals and they treat - to be quite honest - their administrative leadership like crap, and that is unprofessional of me to say, but I am going to say it,” Weise said, growing increasingly emotional while you could hear a pin drop in the room.
“And I am going to beg you, beg you, to take into account what we do every day,” she said.
“The day I had a gun on campus, I felt lucky to send every kid home safe. And I will tell you, I didn't hear from one board member until it was well over. And I will tell you that 45 minutes is an outrageously long time on BUHS campus when you're waiting for the police because you don't have an SRO.”
She noted that the Brattleboro Police Department does not have the workforce to respond any faster, “and they've been really honest about that.”
“Please, stop and think about our years of training, about how much we work for you and our community, and how much we honor our students,” she said. “There is not a night that I don't go home thinking about kids.”
“I'm sorry to be so emotional, but please, I'm begging you, treat us with the same respect that you're treating the students in the room,” Wiese said. “If you can't include everybody at the table, the discussion doesn't even start in a meaningful way.”
And, she said, “if you want letter of resignation, please let Mark know, and I will honor that.”
Speno then spoke, smiling and thanking the students again, apparently concerned.
“This is a moment in time,” he said. “Let's think toward tomorrow, toward next week. What can we do to improve the community?”