By Jason Starr
After one year having an armed Shelburne Police officer serving in the role of “school resource officer” at Champlain Valley Union High School, students, administrators and the school board members who originally authorized the position are re-evaluating the idea.
They have been spurred by a nationwide reckoning on the role police play in communities ignited after the police killing of George Floyd earlier this year. Principal Adam Bunting believes CVU has hired the right person for the job in Matt Collins, a Burlington native with degrees in psychology and educational leadership. But he acknowledges calls from racial justice advocates to eliminate school resource officers and redirect funding to counseling and restorative justice practices.
“We have to move toward this conversation,” Bunting said in an Oct. 20 meeting of the Champlain Valley School Board. “Matt doesn’t want to be a symbol of fear for our students.”
In an open letter to Vermont school boards and superintendents, Vermont Legal Aid argues that police officers in schools contribute to the disproportionate discipline and criminalization of students of color and those with disabilities. It calls for the elimination of school resource officers.
“We urge school boards and school administrators to shift resources to
establishing restorative justice practices and providing mental health supports and services to students,” the letter states. “The time is now for school boards across Vermont to … remedy the inequity and discriminatory effect of policing and exclusionary practices.”
Elyse Martin-Smith, a student representative to the school board, said questions have come up within the schools Racial Alliance Committee (RAC) about the wisdom of having an officer in the school.
“Should police be in schools is definitely a question the RAC has talked about and I think that it’s a question we have to consider,” she said. “The conversation (about) having a position like that in school is an important one to have with students.”
Collins told the board that, in addition to building relationships with students, he responded to 40 incidents during his first year at CVU. They included minor car crashes in the school parking lot, well checks on students and families, assisting with medical emergencies, responding to threats both inside the building and threats directed at the school from outside the building, breaking up a fight and issuing a handful of marijuana and tobacco tickets.
“Was anything done that could not have been done by a non-police officer,” board member Angela Arsenault asked.
The school has also recently hired two new social workers, who work with Collins on incident response.
“We can work hand in hand and collaborate, and that makes the best outcomes,” Collins said.
Earlier in his career, Bunting was against having officers in schools. But he advocated for the position at CVU in 2018 — a time when students and teachers were asking for safety measures in the wake of the school shooting that year in Parkland, Fla.
Collins, at the Oct. 20 board meeting, reminded the board of his value in a worst-case scenario.
“If there is an active threat to this school, while everyone else is locking in place, I’m the one that will go to that threat. I’m the one that will keep this school safe,” Collins said. “An SRO in a school that responds to and stops a threat saves lives. That is my function here, that is my training and that is what I would do if that happens.”