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Editorial: Bradford School Safety

“This case in part will bring a lot of attention to policies that are in place or need to be in place for teachers,” said a Vermont state trooper, speaking about allegations that a Bradford teacher had sexually assaulted a student.

That was in the fall of 2007, following the arrest of Bradford Elementary School sixth-grade teacher Richard Foster, who had been charged with numerous counts of assaulting and otherwise exploiting a young boys. So, now, five years later, when officials are offering similar pledges in the wake of allegations against a different teacher, the community has reason to wonder: If Bradford already reviewed its policies and took whatever corrective action was necessary to protect students, why do it again? Did the school district not follow through last time, or did it follow through but then relaxed those policies as time lessened the shock and outrage that followed Foster’s arrest and eventual conviction?

Were it not for the fact that this is the second time in a relatively short period that the Bradford community has been given assurances that proper steps are being taken to protect their children, the measures announced this month would seem not just sensible, which they are, but also adequate, which they may well be. But the familiarity of the situation raises questions about the school district’s commitment to following up.

In the wake of the recent arrest of Brian Musty, a longtime gym teacher and coach at Oxbow Union High School who has pleaded not guilty to charges that he repeatedly assaulted a female student in the late ’90s, Principal Larry Walsh announced last week that the school district would pursue several courses of action to protect students. Educators and employees in the district will receive training from both the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Education to review legal requirements governing the reporting of suspected abuse, about how to better recognize potential problems and about proper boundaries between adults and children. The school is also planning to host a conference on sex abuse and student safety.

Along with the training, the school district has hired a Burlington lawyer to interview employees who were working in the school at the time of the alleged abuse to determine how staff members handled whatever information they had available.

“The internal investigation is really due diligence — did anyone know anything, is there an opportunity to come forward, and have we followed up with getting information from the staff that was around during that time?” Walsh said.

That internal investigation also ought to shed light on whether and how the school district came up short in its response to the 2007 revelations. The school district’s pledge to share the results of the report as soon as it’s completed is commendable and necessary.

Walsh also endorsed a proposal advocated by the Bradford Police Commission to station a town police officer in schools during the academic year. Whether that recommendation is implemented will be determined by its costs and whether the community believes the expense is likely to significantly improve school safety.

Whatever is decided about the hiring of a school resource officer, moving quickly to offer additional staff training reflects the right priority. A police officer can draw upon professional expertise to recognize a situation that warrants attention, but that level of protection can’t compare with a school full of adults who are adequately trained and committed to being vigilant about the safety of students.

The school district’s combination of undertaking immediate staff training and hiring an outside investigator to fully determine what happened in the late ’90s is a promising start, but as has become clear over the last five years, what happens after the outrage subsides is equally, if not more, important.