Jim Kenyon: School Cop Rejected in Bradford, Vt.

I’ve heard old-timers say that Town Meeting isn’t what it used to be, and they’re probably right. Not as many people seem to show up or speak out as they once did. And the power to decide important town business has flowed to appointed administrators (see Norwich and its 200-foot communication tower), leaving voters with the unfulfilling leftovers. (See the proposed “Rights of Nature” amendment to the Vermont Constitution that would declare that fish are people, too.)

For the most part, Town Meeting has pretty much gone the way of electric typewriters and daily newspapers. (My present company excepted, of course.)

But yesterday, voters in Bradford, Vt., restored my faith a bit in New England’s traditional form of direct democracy: Town Meeting still does matter.

In the last few months, the Bradford Selectboard, the town’s Police Commission and the board that governs Oxbow Union High School had all lined up behind an effort to hire a “school resource officer” to patrol the hallways at Oxbow and the adjacent River Bend Career and Technical Center. Advocates argued that having a cop on duty would create a safer learning environment and deter crime.

Supporters also tried to sell voters on the idea by stressing how inexpensive it would be. In the aftermath of the school shooting tragedy in Newtown, Conn., last December, President Obama and others in Washington, D.C., have talked about bringing back the “Cops in Schools” grant program.

Bradford expected the feds to pick up most of the tab for the next three years. Although pay and benefits for a full-time officer amount to roughly $60,000 a year, the town would only pay six grand. The Oxbow school district, which consists of Bradford, Newbury and Waits River, would be responsible for about $15,000 a year.

A deal too good to pass up?

Not according to Bradford voters. They overwhelmingly rejected the proposal, 107-43.

After the vote, Selectboard Chairman Ted Unkles, a supporter, told me that he didn’t think money was a deciding factor. “It was more the idea of it,” he said. “The voters weren’t persuaded that it was the way to go.”

Supporters tried their hardest. Police Commission member John Hersh reminded voters that in recent years Bradford had seen “two teachers arrested for wrongdoing inside (its) schools. A fresh set of eyes who reports to the (police) chief will help improve the situation,” he said.

Hersh was referring to former Bradford Elementary School teacher Richard Foster, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2009 for producing child pornography involving two sixth-grade boys, and longtime Oxbow High gym teacher and coach Brian Musty, who was arrested at the school in November and has pleaded not guilty to a charge that he repeatedly assaulted a female student in the late 1990s.

This is a novel idea. But does Bradford really need a cop roaming school grounds to protect students from their teachers?

I hope not.

Shirley Beresford, who was a high school teacher and librarian for 25 years in Bradford, probably summed up the situation the best. Whether they come from outside or inside the school, some threats can’t be stopped. “It’s an impossible assignment for a person — armed or not,” she said.

I think the voters got this one right. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and Citizens for Juvenile Justice released a study called “Arrested Futures” that showed why cops in schools can do more harm than good.

“Research from around the country indicates that the placement of police officers in schools does not necessarily have a positive impact on school safety or school culture. Both the atmosphere in the school and school performance overall are more likely to be enhanced by the presence of strong administrators and supportive and engaged staff,” the report concluded.

Last year, I wrote about a 13-year-old Hartford Middle School student who was arrested by the town’s “school resource officer,” after an encounter that started with a lunch tray being knocked out of another student’s hands. No injuries were reported, but the 13-year-old was charged with disorderly conduct. More than six months later, after his father hired a lawyer to fight the case, the Windsor County State’s Attorney’s Office dropped the charge.

It was the kind of overzealous policing inside schools that happens more often than the public realizes, according to the Massachusetts study. “Research has shown that the presence of on-site police officers frequently results in both more student arrests and more arrests for misbehavior previously handled informally by educators and parents.

“Police officers are typically trained to address adult criminal behavior. They usually have only a limited, if any, understanding of issues related to child development and psychology. As a result, the way they address student behavioral issues can have a detrimental effect on the student population and school as a whole.”

By rejecting the call to bring a cop into its high school, Bradford voters bucked a national trend. Sixty years ago, only Flint, Mich., had a cop watching hallways, lunchrooms and classrooms. Today, there are an estimated 17,000 cops in schools.

Town Meeting is traditionally a place where people think and speak for themselves. Sometimes, it’s different from what their elected officials recommend. As Unkles said yesterday, “That’s why we hold Town Meeting.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net.