News

CVU to end police officer position

Bill introduced to ban school officers statewide

BY JASON STARR Observer staff

Champlain Valley Union High School’s experiment with having a full-time, armed police officer in the building will end in June after a three-year stint.

School district administrators announced last week that they will not renew the contract of Matt Collins, a member of the Shelburne Police Department who has filled the role since 2018.

‘There is no shame in changing our minds in order to create a community in which all of our students feel safe, supported and respected.’

— Jessica Lemieux Champlain Valley Union High School teacher

The school resource officer position was created in the wake of the deadly school shooting in Park- land, Fla. The tragedy triggered national protests from students and teachers demanding safety measures for school buildings. CVU students and staff participated in those protests, walking out of class en masse on a day in March, 2018.

CVU Principal Adam Bunting said Tuesday that the meaning of safety in school has evolved since then. The killing last year of George Floyd ignited a reckoning with systemic racism in policing and elevated the discomfort some members of the school community have with an armed officer in the building.

During a school board meeting last November, a group of CVU educators urged the school district to eliminate the SRO posi- tion. Teacher Jessica Lemieux explained to the board how her views on the SRO have changed.

“At times, I’ve felt incredibly anxious to be at school. Many of those moments happen after tragic school shootings,” she said. “So when the idea of having an SRO was bought to my attention, I am ashamed to say that I was grateful, and very naive. I felt that an armed police officer would somehow make my community safer for everyone.

“I’ve changed my mind,” she continued. “I am not safer with an SRO and our students of color are less safe. I am no longer OK … prioritizing my comfort and the comfort of some of our white colleagues and students over the safety of our students of color. There is no shame in changing our minds in order to create a community in which all of our students feel safe, supported and respected.”

School Superintendent Elaine Pinckney said the district will change its approach to school safety, focusing on using contracted experts to make professional assessments of specific threats.

“It’s not someone who would be walking the halls. It would be someone who Adam or Greg (Marino, Williston’s lead principal) would refer concerns to so they can do an assessment and follow up,” District Chief Operations Officer Jeanne Jensen explained.

The new safety model will also include a deeper connection between CVU and the Hinesburg Police.

“They are really a minute away,” Bunting said. “We really need to work with them on how we maintain the level of safety that has helped people feel comfortable with an SRO and how we work with our police so that they are our allies in any racial justice and racial equity work that we are doing.

“I think it’s a mistake to marginalize police,” he added. “They are a part of our community and they can be really powerful allies and we need to figure out what that looks like.”

Bunting said he could have done a better job introducing Collins as the SRO to the student community in 2018 so that any discomfort with his presence was allayed. “There was a lot of discomfort with the idea of a firearm in the building,” he said. “We know what that emotional state does for learning. It’s something all schools need to be conscious of.”

The school district’s decision comes as state lawmakers have introduced a bill that would prevent schools from employing a full-time officer. The bill, S.63, co-introduced by Chittenden County Sen. Chris Pearson, would allow schools to call police to deal with security concerns on a case-by-case basis, but would prevent them from contracting with law enforcement agencies to station an officer in a school on a regular basis.

Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, another co-sponsor of the bill, said stationing police in schools has been a failed policy.

“Based on the research that I have seen, there’s not really so much of a gray area when it comes to the impact of SROs on some of our most vulnerable students,” she said.

Study after study has shown that discipline in schools is meted out more frequently, and more harshly, to students of color, students with disabilities and low-income students. Critics charge that police in schools supercharge this dynamic, and that students acting out in minor ways — or because of a disability — subsequently wind up in the criminal justice system.

Over a dozen advocacy organizations — including the ACLU, Vermont Public Interest Research Group, Migrant Justice and Vermont Legal Aid — have backed a 10-point criminal justice reform agenda this legislative session that includes removing police from schools.

Falko Schilling, advocacy director for the Vermont chapter of the ACLU, said the group was glad the conversation is advancing from the local level to the Statehouse.

“The evidence shows that students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately arrested in schools,” he said. “It’s important to take a statewide ap- proach to this issue and implement a statewide solution.”

— Lola Duffort of VTDigger contributed to this report