Winooski school district discusses removing school resource officer

Published: Sep. 15, 2020 at 6:37 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 16, 2020 at 5:31 AM EDT
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The ask comes from the group Winooski Students for Anti-racism. Getting rid of the SRO is one of eight of their demands which they say would make Winooski schools more equal and just.

On Tuesday, the board voted 4-to-1 to adopt six of their eight demands, including:

1) creating a racial truth and reconciliation Commission,

2) publicly released a strategy and action plan on hiring teachers of color,

3) immediately requiring teachers to incorporate ethnic studies and anti-racism curriculum,

4) forming a review committee to look over the current curriculum,

5) hiring a professional on students' civil rights to host biannual workshops, and

6) developing a plan to better communicate mentoring opportunities to students whose first language is not English.

The board hopes to get more feedback on launching an anti-racism committee that allows students to report incidents of racism and prejudice, as well as replacing the school resource officer with two trauma specialists: one for the elementary school and one for the middle and high school. WSA wants at least one specialist to be a person of color.

About 10 people spoke during public comment on the demands. Some offered advice on how they think the district should move about being anti-racist.

“We need to censor other experiences outside of white middle-class experience,” said Kari Bohlen.

“When we’re talking about doing things the right way, we need to first name and acknowledge that business, as usual, is racist,” said middle school teacher Mugabo Uwingyimana.

The board also heard from parents who criticized their handling of these demands and said they didn’t do a good job informing the community of them.

“I don’t think it’s enough to simply say 'Okay we’re going to go back and revisit demands 2-3. I think at this point, all of the demands need to be readdressed and you need to follow the proper policies and procedures before accepting any of them,” said Sarah McGowan.

“Nobody asked the community as a whole at all what was going on. Nothing was communicated to basically anyone. It was only us that were on the school board meetings that were telling other community members what was actually happening,” said Lydia Mongeon.

Winooski Students for Anti-racism is made up of students and administrators in the school district. They have gotten more than 200 signatures on their petition for the demands.

The school board will continue seeking feedback from the community.

No word on when they’ll take a vote on it, but we’ll let you know once they do.

Student Resource Officers

Since 1999, the Winooski School District has had a school resource officer. But as classes started up again this fall the SRO is gone.

“Honestly, that’s to be determined still. The school trustees adopted some demands from the Winooski Students for Anti-Racism,” said Winooski City Manager Jessie Baker.

The district employs one school resource officer who is a Winooski Police officer. Officer Jason Ziter is staying out of school while the district decides what to do. Winooski Students for Anti-Racism want his position eliminated and replaced with two trauma specialists.

“There are a number of staff at the school right now that have specialized training in trauma response, including the school resource officer,” said Baker.

If Winooski decides to keep Ziter, the student group wants him in plain clothes and unarmed. Baker says that can’t happen since he is a full-time officer who needs to be ready to respond anywhere in the city at a moment’s notice.

Winooski School Superintendent Sean McMannon was not available for comment, but school officials released a statement saying, “He is reporting to the police department and is available during the school days to respond to any direct requests of students, teachers, and administrators at the Winooski School District,”

In Burlington, they are starting the year with SROs at the Middle and High school. The Burlington School District is implementing a safety task force led by students and community members to evaluate the district’s safety needs.

“That’s what the task force is for -- to really make that determination. We didn’t want to make that determination independently without community input and community involvement,” said Henri Sparks is the equity director for the Burlington School District. He says the task force plans to meet with the superintendent by December. “We will defiantly be looking at something different. We don’t know what that is.”

Back in Winooski, city officials say they are open to being a part of the discussion. “We do not think that a school resource officer is needed to prevent a school shooting. However, we do think a school resource officer is an integral part of community-wide public safety,” said Baker.

There is a school board meeting scheduled for Tuesday night where further plans for the SRO are expected to be discussed.

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