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Chittenden County schools reexamine need for school resource officers

Published: Apr. 15, 2021 at 8:04 AM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - As school districts look ahead to a more typical school year in the fall, they also are reexamining the position of school resource officers.

“This was a very polarizing issue, and it was being framed and being viewed as a binary decision. Either you keep the SRO or you don’t,” said Sean McMannon, the superintendent of the Winooski School District.

He says the decision to keep their school resource officer in the district needs more careful consideration.

“From my perspective, it has been difficult to find the capacity in the middle of COVID to have a thoughtful process,” McMannon said.

The school board decided to use another six to seven months to research, listen and create a multistakeholder group to aid in the decision.

That’s a process the Burlington School District just wrapped up.

“We researched our own program, our SRO program, what was their intention, what are they doing all day,” said Emma Kouri, parent and committee co-chair.

She says that research, coupled with national data, and student and community input, led them to a broader discussion on safety.

“The SRO is a tiny fraction of the bigger holistic picture of a healthy and safe human being and a healthy human being,” Kouri said.

Henri Sparks, the district’s director of equity, says they took the recommendations of the task force and realized there was work the district could do themselves.

“A lot of the other services that they provided we should be doing,” Sparks said. “In order to be a safe school system, we don’t need police, we need the safety of our faculty and staff. We need each and every one of us to promote safety and well-being of one another. We need to look at students very differently, especially students of the global majority, the ones that we tend to kick out and suspend, the ones that are treated differently in our system.”

By increasing services involving topics like mental health and fostering a good community, they believe it eliminates the need for SROs.

“If we believe we need police in schools to keep us safe, then there are other issues we need to take a look at,” Sparks said.

And while Burlington has made their decision, McMannon is hopeful Winooski can move forward together with more discussion.

“People who are in very strong positions in the either-or camps can come to a compromise in some ways,” McMannon said.

Now that Burlington has downsized their SRO program, Sparks says its next focus will be on mental health services for students, as well as a safe and restorative learning environment for everyone. The changes around Burlington’s SRO program go into effect next year.

McMannon says part of the decision to keep the SRO for this year in Winooski was also rooted in student safety, as they make the transition to new spaces being built.

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