April 17, 2014

Town may hire domestic violence victim advocate

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Position would be funded by federal grant

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Domestic violence victims would find an advocate ready to help them at the Williston police station if a local nonprofit receives a grant for the position.

Burlington-based Women Helping Battered Women, the state's largest anti-domestic violence agency, is applying for the federal grant. The funding would pay for a full-time employee stationed at the Williston Police Department. The advocate would also assist victims in cases handled by South Burlington police and the Vermont State Police barracks in Williston.

Officers do their best to help victims but also have to focus on gathering evidence while juggling other duties, Williston Police Chief Jim Dimmick told the Selectboard last week.

"We get by, but we could do so much better, and this grant would help," he said.

Dimmick and Jennie Davis, development coordinator for Women Helping Battered Women, outlined the advocate's duties and explained at the Jan. 28 Selectboard meeting how the position would help.

They asked for and received the board's permission to apply for the grant, despite concerns that the town would feel compelled to continue funding the position when the money runs out after two years.

The town would have no legal obligation to continue paying the person when and if the grant is not renewed, Davis said. The grant provides $86,000 for salary, benefits and office supplies. The advocate would be employed by the town and have an office at the Williston Police Department.

Williston police handled 36 domestic violence cases that were referred for prosecution in 2007, Dimmick said. Women Helping Battered Women served 64 adults and 73 children from Williston during the 2006-2007 fiscal year.

"Unfortunately, not everyone goes to police," Dimmick said in an interview. "Some just want to be safe."

Davis said the Chittenden County State's Attorney also has an advocate on staff, and there are other agencies that help domestic violence victims. But having someone at the police station would give victims a local link to services.

"That's kind of the essence of the whole thing: to provide a coordinated community response to domestic violence," Davis said. "We want to connect all the existing services and make sure services don't just stop at the police station."

The advocate could help victims find housing, obtain restraining orders and deal with family issues. The advocate could also train and advise officers on handling the sensitive cases.

Domestic violence calls present challenges for police. Dimmick said they are "the most dangerous calls for service we go to."

Statistics support his assertion. A review of 10 years of crime data by the Attorney General's Office found that domestic violence fatalities accounted for 52 percent of homicides in Vermont.

"They are not easy," Dimmick said. "They are always emotional, and it's difficult sometimes to get a clear picture" of what happened.

Many cases boil down to one person's word against the other, Dimmick acknowledged. But gone are the days when police separated victim and perpetrator and hoped for the best. Now officers make an arrest and let a court decide the suspect's innocence or guilt.

The grant, administered by the U.S. Department of Justice, is competitive, and there is no guarantee Women Helping Battered Women will receive the funding, Davis said. But she is confident of success because an application was approved last year for the same grant, which funds another victim advocate shared by Winooski, Colchester and Essex.

The grant application will be filed by the end of the month. Davis said she expects to receive word on the grant by late summer or early fall.

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Changing school lunch program: cost and quality first ingredients

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By Tim Simard
Observer staff

The first step toward a better food service program for Williston schools was taken Monday night by parents, teachers and school administrators. During the first of two meetings that will address the schools’ current food service crisis, all agreed on the importance of offering affordable and nutritional foods, while at the same time increasing participation in the program and curbing the program’s huge deficit.

Last year, the food service program ran at a deficit of nearly $68,000. Bob Mason, chief operations officer for the Chittenden South Supervisory Union, said the current program is in “roughly the same shape” as last year. Mason said the School Board was to get an official number at Wednesday’s School Board meeting.

Participation is also a major issue. Williston schools average just 35 percent participation from students, while the state average is at 52 percent.

Also discussed was former food service director Lydia King’s resignation. Her last day is this week. Leo LaForce and Colleen French, food service employees at Champlain Valley Union High School, will cover operations at Williston Central and Allen Brook schools after the winter break.

School officials did not comment on whether or not King’s resignation was due to the struggling food service program.

Mason said that the food service committee has been meeting since last year and looking at other schools in the state that do well in their programs. They’ve also been looking at what outside vendors could offer.

“Our intent tonight is to look forward,” Mason said at the meeting. “We believe if we can look forward, we can find solutions and find alternatives to help fix the issue.”

About 20 attendees, mostly parents, broke into four groups in order to brainstorm answers to three questions: What is the role of food service in the Williston schools?; how would you measure success and what characteristics would a well-run program have?; what supports do you think the program would need to be successful?

Mason expressed hope that the meeting could generate ideas as to where school officials should focus their efforts.

“As the old adage says, it takes five minutes to lose a customer, and it takes five years to get them back,” he said.

During the small group meetings, parents and educators passed around ideas. One group discussed how incorporating more nutritional foods can go hand in hand with increased participation.

“There needs to be more of an education with healthier foods,” parent Becky Tharp said in regards to the role of food service. “Kids are more likely to eat the food if there is a connection to it.”

Tharp is an organizer, along with Nancy Ryan, Cindy O’Farrell and Esther Palmer, of It Takes a Village – Foundations of Change. The grassroots group was designed to spark community-wide conversations about nutrition and wellness.

Allen Brook School kindergarten teacher Diane DiGennaro, along with her group, agreed that nutrition should be a key role of the food service program.

“If you’re whole philosophy is nutrition and taking care of your body, then you need to see that in you’re school lunch program,” DiGennaro said.

District Principal Walter Nardelli believed students would become more interested in the program if the time waiting to get lunch was reduced. He brainstormed with DiGennaro’s group about what it might take to make the program more successful.

“Make the time it takes to get your food minimal,” he said. “That might involve multi-stations.”

It was nearly unanimous that in order for the program to succeed, it would need greater participation from students, and even teachers. Several ideas were tossed around in groups and in general discussion. Marketing the program to students with free taste testings and coupon incentives was one idea. Bringing on trained chefs to make the food taste better and more nutritious was another.

Abby Klein, a local parent and kindergarten teacher at South Burlington’s Rick Marcotte Central School, said that more choices could make students interested in getting lunch. Her school offers up to seven different choices including a salad bar and ready-made sandwiches, she said.

“It increases the number of kids buying lunch,” Klein, who is also running for the three-year term on the School Board, said. “Teachers also participate because the food is good. If my students see me getting salad from the salad bar, then they are sometimes more inclined to do that, as well.”

Klein said she takes lunch orders in the morning from that day’s menu and her student’s understand that they can’t switch their decision when lunchtime rolls around. The system cuts down on waste, she said.

Discussion also centered on forming more community connections with the lunch program and getting fresher foods by supporting local farms. Nancy Ryan, a member of It Takes A Village who also put together a comprehensive lunch program study for CSSU administrators and the School Board back in December, suggested working with the Vermont FEED program in discussing healthier alternatives.

“The earlier we start, the earlier we can make a transition,” she said.

The Vermont FEED program is a community-based organization that aims to raise awareness about healthy food and good nutrition, while fostering relationships between schools and local farms, according to its Web site.

 Williston Central School principal Jackie Parks said small changes were on the way for the program starting after the winter break. Beginning in March, there will be one menu for both schools and one lunch line for both students and teachers instead of the current separate lines, she said.

Mason said the meeting produced a great “breadth of information,” and he looks forward to where these discussions will lead.

“All of this will prove invaluable,” he said at the end of the meeting. “I don’t want the communications on this to stop.”

The next meeting regarding changes to the food service program will be held March 18 at Williston Central School.
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