A pair of bills sitting in the Vermont Senate demonstrate the ongoing debate over the presence of law enforcement officers in schools.
Last week, Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, introduced S.63, which would prohibit school districts from contracting for the services of school resource officers.
In response Thursday, Sen. Joshua Terenzini, R-Rutland, introduced S.76, a bill that aims to expand SROs by providing grant funding to districts that would like to hire them.
The competing bills speak to the ongoing debate about the role of law enforcement in communities — a debate which intensified after last summer’s national protests following a series of widely publicized deaths of African Americans at the hands of police.
While S.63 would not prohibit districts from working with law enforcement to address security concerns or criminal activity within, it would keep police from having a permanent presence there. The bill also encourages districts to utilize “alternative disciplinary methods,” including restorative justice principles and school-based mental health services.
“My goal with introducing my bill was to create a statewide conversation about the role of police in our schools, and whether or not it was a good thing,” Hardy said. “It seems like I have started that conversation.”
Hardy’s bill cites data from the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection that found schools with a police presence reported 3.5 times more arrests than schools without police.
In Vermont, Black students, who make up 3% of the total student population, account for 13% of school arrests and 9% of referrals to law enforcement, according to CRDC data from 2015-16. The same data shows that Black students in the state had an arrest rate of 38 per 10,000 students — 5.4 times higher than white students.
CRDC findings also revealed that students with disabilities — 13% of Vermont’s student population — represented 36% of school arrests and 37% of referrals to law enforcement over the same period.
A 2015 report produced by Vermont Legal Aid echoes CRDC data. In an analysis of statewide school discipline data, it found that Black/African-American and Native American students were two to three times more likely to be suspended than white students, Students with disabilities were nearly three times more likely to be suspended than white students.
The report noted that additional research has shown, "an overreliance on suspensions, expulsions, and arrests has been shown as counterproductive to achieving many of a school’s goals and has had tremendously negative consequences for youth,” which can lead to increased risks of dropping out, arrests and incarceration.
“Trying to expand the presence and footprint of law enforcement in schools across our state isn't going to do anything but further exacerbate the disparities we already see when it comes to how students of color and students with disabilities are disciplined, and then often referred into the criminal legal system unnecessarily,” said Falko Schilling, advocacy director at the Vermont ACLU.
Terenzini called his bill a “counterbalance” to Hardy’s.
S.76 is not a mandate and would not require districts without SROs to hire one. Like most school-related matters in Vermont, Terenzini sees this as one of local control.
“It's up to the local school district to decide if it's right for their community or not,” he said.
He expressed concerns that not having a law enforcement officer onsite to respond to an issue is compounded by Vermont’s rural nature, where schools may be many miles away from the local police or sheriff’s department.
“Time equals lives when there's an active shooter or intruder in the building,” he said.
In Vermont, about half of all school districts utilize SROs. An analysis by VT Digger last year found SROs, which are typically paid for by school districts, cost taxpayers around $2 million annually. Broken down by district, those costs vary. Most run between $50,000 to $80,000 per officer. However, some districts, like the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union in Bennington County, spend more than $300,000 on SRO services.
S.76 proposes $1 million a year over the next four years to be appropriated to the Agency of Education from the General Fund for the creation of a grant program for districts to apply for up to $50,000 annually for reimbursement for hiring an SRO.
Terenzini highlighted the positive impacts SROs can have.
“They build relationships with students, and there's a bridge that's built between the community and law enforcement,” he said, adding that “there's a tremendous amount of outpouring of support for our school resource officers.”
While S.76 does not mention data about students’ experiences with or views on SROs, it does cite the 2020 Virginia Secondary School Climate Survey conducted by the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development, which found that 85% of staff “somewhat to strongly agree” that SROs make them feel safer at school, and 90% saying SROs make a positive contribution to the school.
The same report found that a majority of students (73%) agreed that SROs made them feel safer at school. Among Black students, however, that favorable perception dropped to 67%. The report also noted that the “survey was administered prior to the subsequent calls for reform of law enforcement and the role of SROs in schools.”
In the Milton Town School District in Chittenden County, a survey conducted last fall by committee charged with evaluating the role of SROs found that 64% of high school students and 72% of middle school students “felt safe with the SRO present.”
Terenzini’s bill cites two news reports in which an SRO’s actions prevented potentially violent incidents.
“A first layer of defense in a school is added when an SRO is onsite during a serious incident,” the bill reads.
However, Hardy stated “there's not conclusive evidence to show that the presence of an SRO prevents school violence,” and research showing their efficacy is not definitive.
Terenzini said he recognizes the data that shows disparities in discipline among certain student populations.
To that end, his bill states that the selection of an SRO should be a mutual decision between the police agency and school district to ensure a good fit for the student community.
It would also require any new SRO have a minimum three years on the job of regular patrol policing “with no infractions for excessive use of force or other acts of misconduct noted on the individual’s law enforcement personnel file.”
In addition, it calls for a minimum of 40 hours a year of training in “implicit bias, de-escalation, trauma-informed investigations, adolescent development, crisis intervention, and active shooter situations.”
“We cannot accept any type of biases or any acts of targeting of our school children,” he said.
Terenzini said his bill didn’t specifically address whether current SROs would be reevaluated under these new requirements, but suggested it was a detail the Senate Education Committee could examine.
While Hardy had not had a chance to read Terenzini’s bill, she was encouraged by its inclusion of such requirements.
“If he introduced that bill in reaction to mine and he put those provisions in there, that's already a step in the right direction,” she said.
Such provisions might have produced a different outcome at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans in March 2019 where, as reported by Seven Days last August, a confrontation between an SRO and a student with disabilities resulted in the student being forced to the floor, handcuffed and charged with disorderly conduct. During the altercation, the officer said the student was “acting retarded.”
According to reports, the student had a “diagnosed disability that is not visibly apparent.” At the time, the officer told investigators he was unaware of the student’s disability.
The city and the Maple Run Unified School District ultimately agreed to pay the a $30,000 settlement to the student’s family. The officer was reassigned at the end of the school year.
While the Vermont Senate embarks on a debate about the future of SROs, several school districts around the state are currently considering eliminating the positions, and two already have.
Earlier this month, the Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools School Board voted unanimously to retire its SRO position.
Since last fall, School Director Emma Bay-Henson has chaired a committee of community stakeholders tasked with examining the role of SROs in the district. The committee presented its findings at the board’s February meeting.
When asked whether the role of SROs should be hashed out on the local level as was done in her district or by a statewide prohibition, Bay-Henson said she was not sure what the right answer was.
“I think at the national level, at the state level, at the local level, our culture right now, we're just at a place where we need to examine how implicit bias interacts with our systems and look at our best practices,” she said. “So I think it's good to have the conversation at local level, at state level, wherever we can have that conversation, it's a good thing.”
In Rutland County, however, conversations about school safety take on a different tone. Three years ago this week, former Fair Haven Union High School student Jack Sawyer was arrested after police learned of his alleged plans to carry out a shooting the school.
Brooke Olsen-Farrell, superintendent of the Slate Valley Unified School District, of which FHUHS is a part, said the timing of S.63 “makes it particularly emotional.”
“For my staff and community, there are wounds that have not healed and I'm not sure they will,” she said.
She explained that having an SRO provides a feeling of safety for staff, students and families.
“That that's the perception, so when you threaten to take away in this very raw, emotional situation people are understandably going to be angry and upset about that,” she said.
Slate Valley has 2.2 full-time equivalent SROs, costing the district $130,000 annually. One officer is stationed at the high school full-time while other officers visit the district’s five other schools daily.
Olsen-Farrell said she supported S.76’s provisions that SROs receive more training, and said she would gladly hire more social workers and counselors — as recommended in S.63 — if she could find them.
“There's no one to hire. We already have positions that are open, that remain unfilled in many of our schools,” she said.
She argued that equity and school safety are not “mutually exclusive conversations.”
“I think we should be breaking down barriers and building relationships and not putting more walls up,” she said.
Olsen-Farrell said Slate Valley’s SROs do just that, explaining that on a given day, officers might deliver food to needy families, check up on kids at home, or pick up a student who missed the bus.
“I think there's tremendous power in that position, if used correctly,” she said. “That’s not to say that they're used correctly everywhere.”
Hardy acknowledged that responses to her bill will differ around the state and that the conversation is a difficult one, but encouraged people to engage in it.
“I think there is, potentially, a middle ground, but I think it's really important that police also acknowledge the history and the current distrust between communities of color and police and how that might play out in a school setting for students of color — even in communities that are predominantly white,” she said.