Vt. lawmakers take up school safety measures

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) After sending new gun restrictions to the governor last week, lawmakers are now focusing on school safety measures, including more armed personnel in schools.

One proposal the Senate Judiciary Committee is reviewing would allow retired cops to work as armed school resource officers. Chairman Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, thinks rural schools -- where police are often far away -- could benefit. "This would be a good idea for them to be able to provide additional school safety," he said.

But the state Agency of Education is skeptical. Deputy Secretary Amy Fowler says national studies show schools with resource officers suspend and expel more minority and low-income students and refer those students to police for arrest more often. "Those tend to follow patterns of racial and economic bias," Fowler said. She says resource officers need more than police training. "Adolescent development might be something that would be useful to them, conflict mediation, some training in restorative practices."

Sears supports the idea of armed school resource officers but is concerned about the negative consequences Fowler mentioned. "They've worked for years in our juvenile justice and adult justice system. No reason they can't work for school discipline," Sears said.

Prosecutors, meanwhile, want a new felony for making a school threat. It's currently a misdemeanor. John Campbell represents state's attorneys and says students need the added protection. "They deserve better than what we currently have as laws to protect them," he said. Campbell says the new felony will allow law enforcement to act when credible threats are made. "Children are almost a protected class in and of themselves. Not one constitutionally guaranteed, but one in which they are people who are unable to protect themselves, defend themselves."

Sears says the bill will move forward, but what ideas will survive is not yet known. "I think it's vital that we take every step that we can to protect our students," he said.

The House has included $5 million in funding in the capital budget to beef up school security. If the Senate also approves, the money will be doled out after security audits are completed at Vermont schools.