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City Page: Back to School

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The glorious Vermont summer has rolled right into an equally pleasant early autumn. The cool air and first signs of color in the trees bring smiles to the face. It’s wonderful to see people out and about (safely) in the community taking advantage of the good weather.

The weather is the only thing “normal” about this fall season. We have now passed the half-year mark since a state of emergency was called in Vermont, and around the country, due to the COVID-19 virus. This pandemic has changed our lives, our community, our economy, and much of our way of thinking.

One major place for change is with schools. I’d like to compliment the Montpelier Roxbury School District administration, faculty, staff, parents, and students for the successful opening of school. They have had to make hundreds of difficult and often unpopular decisions as they walk through a completely new path. Balancing hard and fast guidelines and regulations with open ended choices left to local districts has created between seemingly opposites.

As we pass the anniversary of September 11, 2001, it is appropriate to acknowledge the city’s fine first responders and emergency services personnel. Our police officers, firefighter/EMTs, paramedics, and dispatchers perform very difficult and stressful jobs on a 24-hour-a-day, 7 days-a-week basis in order to keep the rest of us safe. They encounter situations that most of us can’t imagine. We are fortunate to have excellent Police and Fire/EMS departments in Montpelier. I appreciate their service.

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Policing continues to be a topic of discussion before both the City Council and the School Board. My June article outlined eight requests made to the Council. At the August 26th meeting, eleven additional items were presented. I will review those in another article.

The School Board has been presented with a request to eliminate the School Resource Officer position. While this request was also made to the Council, much more focus on this issue has been at the School Board meetings. Concerns have been expressed about the presence of an armed, often uniformed, police officer in the schools. A particular emphasis has been placed on the experience of students of color. With the backdrop of national scenes of violence by police against persons of color, it is understandable that some students may feel vulnerable.

Although the school district is administratively separate from the city government, the School Resource Officer is jointly funded and operated by the city and the district. Police Chief Brian Peete provided the bulk of this information. The purpose of this outline is to provide information for discussions and deliberation.

What is a School Resource Officer (SRO)?

Among the Montpelier Police Department’s (MPD) highest priorities is the safety of students, educators, and staff. Key to that safety is the assignment of a School Resource Officer (SRO). School Resource Officers are not disciplinarians and do not take the place of counselors, nor can counselors assume the role of an SRO. National trends have shown increases in threats and disruption to students and staff through the outlets of social media platforms and other electronic means, and acts of criminality and violence such as drug use in and around schools, domestic violence, and school shootings have also become an unfortunate reality. These are situations that require law enforcement and the SRO. The MPD has adopted best practice policies and training as endorsed by the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO). More information on NASRO can be found here: nasro.org.

The MPD has had an SRO program for over 20 years, and during this time its SROs have focused on helping families and children navigate through difficult and deeply personal crises. Our SROs exercise sensitivity and use restorative justice practices when responding to situations that mandate (by law) law enforcement intervention. The MPD’s philosophy is to apply a full-court holistic approach and partner with the numerous agencies and stakeholders that respond to crises and crimes that affect children: counselors and teachers need a highly trained direct contact and familiar face from us.

The position was initially created using Federal COPS grant funding to replace an ineffective DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program. Overall school safety was always the goal, however, a particular emphasis has been on substance abuse prevention and intervention.

The SRO:

  • Assists in investigating/facilitating matters of a crime as they relate to the school (vandalism, theft, drugs, etc.).
  • Assists (and responds) in providing crisis planning for active shooter or other critical safety incidents.
  • Serves school staff in required mandated reporting.
  • Serves as a resource for students and parents with deeply personal questions regarding crime they may be experiencing.
  • Facilitates in the sharing of information between law enforcement and external partners as they relate to criminal crisis issues students experience.
  • Provides external resources and warm hand-offs for families and children in need.
  • Teaches de-escalation and encourages restorative justice practices and programs.
  • Provides information and education on the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse to students and staff.
  • Assists in providing traffic control.
  • Serves as a positive role model in our communities to show people that police are a source for help.
  • Facilitates discussions about police, race, and social and economic injustice needed for systemic change.
  • Is not involved in disciplinary decisions regarding student behavior. An SRO cannot expel, suspend or discipline children or staff in any way.
  • The SROs are not tasked to do proactive patrols so to arrest students and staff on campus.
  • An SRO must have the patience, knowledge, experience, and demeanor necessary to work with the most sacred of any community: children.

SROs are trained in the following: Foundations of school-based law enforcement; ethics and the SRO; the SRO as a teacher/guest speaker; effective presentations; understanding special needs students; the SRO as an informal counselor/mentor; social media and cyber security; understanding the teen brain; violence and victimization: challenges to development; sex trafficking of youths; school law; developing and supporting successful relationships with diverse students; effects of youth trends and drugs on the school culture and environment; threat response: preventing violence in school settings; school safety and emergency operations plans; and crime prevention through environmental design.

The SROs will also receive additional training in Team 2 Mental Health training (vermontcarepartners.org/team-two-2); crisis intervention team training (CIT); LGBTQ+; de-escalation and conflict resolution; child and adolescent cognitive development; drugs; sexual assault; domestic violence; the effects of domestic violence on youths; and suicide awareness and prevention.

If you have questions or want to further discuss SROs and policing in general, please contact Police Chief Brian Peete at (802) 223-3445. We understand these conversations are critical; it is important everyone has the correct information about this topic.

As this community discussion continues, I believe that people share some very important values. We all want students and families to both feel and be safe in and around schools. We all want intrinsic bias and systemic racist practices to be called out and eliminated. We all want to prevent young people from engaging in harmful practices such as substance abuse, bullying, criminal actions, and active discrimination against those who are different from themselves. We all want support for children and families who live in poverty or are otherwise marginalized. We all, presumably, understand that the school system alone cannot address all societal issues that impact learning and student interactions. I hope that we base a community conversation around the best and most appropriate way to support those values.

As always, thank you for reading this article and for your interest in Montpelier City Government. Please feel free to contact me at wfraser@montpelier-vt.org or 802-223-9502. City information can be found on our web site www.montpelier-vt.org our Facebook page, City of Montpelier – Official and on Twitter @vtmontpelier. For emergency notifications please sign up for Vermont Alerts.

Text paid for by City of Montpelier.