Bradford, Reeling from Teacher Arrest, Considers Hiring Cop for Schools
Bradford — The Police Commission is proposing to hire a full-time police officer to patrol Oxbow Union High School and other schools following the recent arrest of an Oxbow teacher on a charge that he sexually assaulted a student several years ago.
The plan to hire what’s known as a school resource officer has tentative backing from other town officials, but even supporters acknowledge it may not be feasible in a police budget already slated to balloon next year.
“I think it’s a fine idea ... like everyone else I’m very concerned about funding,” Selectboard Chairman Ted Unkles said. “There is more than compelling evidence to justify a school resource officer, but given that our police budget is already going up significantly, I don’t (know) that we can ask the taxpayers to pay that much more. I’m not opposing it. I’m just going cautiously.”
The Selectboard will consider the proposal, which the Police Commission endorsed last Saturday, as part of its annual budget deliberations in the coming weeks, Unkles said.
Officials said the proposal was a response to the outcry at a public meeting earlier this month during which many of the 100 residents in attendance criticized school officials for failing to monitor teacher and coach Brian Musty, who has been charged with sexually assaulting a student at his home in Topsham, Vt., and at the school in the late 1990s.
Musty, who pleaded not guilty last month, was placed on paid leave, officials said.
After the public forum, the Police Commission, a four-member citizens panel appointed by the Selectboard to oversee police operations, dusted off an idea it had pushed to no avail in 2006.
Gary Moore, chairman of the commission, said having an officer inside the schools would add another layer of supervision, and allow students to feel more comfortable reporting problems to police.
“We’re doing this to try to get the discussion started — we think it’s worth a discussion,” Moore said.
Orange East Supervisory Union Superintendent Don Johnson said he and Oxbow High School Principal Larry Walsh have discussed bringing an officer inside the school, but are aware that budget constraints could make it a difficult sell.
“I think it’s an obvious time for the police commission to bring this to the forefront,” Johnson said. “It builds positive relationships with students and law enforcement. That opens up another set of eyes that are trained to see things school employees might not be trained to see. It adds a lot to that safety component.”
Specifics have not been hammered out, but officials agree on the basic outline of their plan: The officer would be a Bradford Police Department employee, primarily assigned to the schools during the academic year. During vacations and the summer, the officer would patrol in town. The officer could also work in the district’s other schools, Bradford Elementary and Newbury Elementary.
The problem is money. The federal government used to provide grant money for school resourceofficers, but those funds have dried up, Bradford officials said. The cost of a school resource officer would likely be split between the town and the school district.
Bradford taxpayers, however, will already be confronted by a swelling police department budget. Earlier this year, Bradford hired its first full-time police chief: Jeff Stiegler, a former Laconia police officer, replaced Gene Martin, who worked part-time.
Additionally, Stiegler has been authorized to hire a second full-time officer and is also seeking cruiser repairs and new uniforms. In all, the new chief is already asking that the police budget grow about 40 percent, from $120,000 this year to $170,000.
“For a small community, the conservative side of me is saying that’s a lot to bring to taxpayers at Town Meeting,” Stiegler said. “It comes down to educating them.”
Hartford and Lebanon are among Upper Valley towns who currently have school resource officers.
Advocates in Bradford said they believe it would enhance security and make students and staff more likely to talk with police.
“There’s no way to predict,” Stiegler said. “However, having a uniformed police officer on campus on a daily basis interacting with the student body and faculty — obviously, trust will be built. They might report (concerns). ... I just think it makes a safer campus.”
Johnson said the school is in the midst or revising other policies to increase safety, and would be announcing them publicly in the coming weeks.
Mark Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3304.