Board advances plan to hire ‘school resource officer’
By Jason Starr
The Champlain Valley School Board is moving forward with a plan to station an armed police officer in and around Champlain Valley Union High School while proceeding cautiously so that the right person is chosen for the job.
The idea comes in the wake of deadly school shootings in Florida and Texas earlier this year, as well as the suspension of a CVU student in March after alleged threats to the school. In May, a “school resource officer” was credited with confronting a gunman outside a high school in Indiana and preventing a potential school shooting.
The school resource officer in Montpelier, Matt Knisley, spoke to CVSD board members in May as the board began discussing the possibility of hiring an officer for CVU. Knisely was involved in an armed standoff outside Montpelier High School in April, when police shot and killed a former student making threats outside the school.
CVU Principal Adam Bunting used to work with Knisely in Montpelier and presented him as an exemplary school resource officer.
“It’s important to find the right committed person who fits culturally and who is dedicated,” Bunting said.
Administrators feel “some urgency” to fill the position, Chief Operations Officer Jeanne Jensen said, but it’s uncertain whether an officer will be in place by the start of the 2018-2019 school year.
As the discussion continued during the board’s meeting Tuesday, board member Kelly Bowen read a poem from CVU student Hailey Chase that illustrates the school community’s heightened need for safety and security. The poem was published this month by the non-profit Young Writers Project.
The poem’s opening verse:
If I die in a school shooting politicize my death.
fight for our safety,
turn my funeral into a protest.
School administrators plan to convene a hiring committee to describe the characteristics of an ideal school resource officer and conduct interviews. According to Bunting, duties would include: developing a rapport with students, parents, faculty and staff; providing protection and conducting regular safety assessments; teaching drivers education, safety courses and independent student projects; mentoring students; providing event security; and responding to criminal infractions involving students.
School resource officers are not school employees. They are employed by a local law enforcement agency and operate under “a different set of rules” when it comes to use of force, Knisely said.
“SROs have to make decisions on their own,” Bunting said. “If action needs to be taken quickly, they have the training and the ability to do that.”
Bunting envisions about 85 percent of the school resource officer’s time spent at the high school and about 15 percent floating to the district’s elementary and middle schools.
But school leaders in Williston are not interested in having a school resource officer at Williston Central or Allen Brook schools, according to Lead Principal Greg Marino.
“We don’t see the need for it at the K-8 level at this point in time,” he said.
The school already has a beneficial relationship with the Williston Police Department, which is located across the street from WCS, and the Vermont State Police, located a couple miles away, he said.
“We value the relationship we have with local law enforcement,” Marino said. “They have an open invitation … to be here and to be familiar and friendly with the kids.”
The proximity between the school and police headquarters is reassuring, he added.
Hinesburg Police Chief Frank Koss said it makes sense for CVU’s school resource officer to be employed by his department, given the school’s location in Hinesburg.
Bunting has also discussed the possibility of creating the position with Williston Police Chief Patrick Foley, Shelburne Police Chief Aaron Noble and Chittenden County Sherrif Kevin McLaughlin. During summer break, the officer would serve as a regular officer.
“Arguably, it should come from Williston,” board member Russ Caffry said. “It has the biggest population. If you want interaction with students, most of the students are in Williston.”
The Hinesburg Selectboard has not yet shown a willingness to fund the school resource officer’s summer shifts.
“That’s literally a $20,000 hit on us,” Koss said. “I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job of policing this school without having an SRO, but I think if there is an SRO at the school, we should try to work it out to be a Hinesburg officer.”