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Column: Is a school resource officer best for Dresden?

  • Contributor Wayne Gersen in West Lebanon, N.H., on April 12, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 2/12/2020 10:20:23 PM
Modified: 2/12/2020 10:20:14 PM

I read with interest recent articles in the Valley News regarding the proposal to fund a school resource officer for the Dresden School District. As one who worked in public education for 36 years, a grandfather of four school-age children, and a Dresden taxpayer, I think the $100,000 needed to fund an SRO — no matter where the money comes from — would be better spent on other ways to improve the well-being of children. Indeed, the more I look at the funding priorities across our region and the country, the more I question our approach to the issue of school safety.

In May 1972, the last year I taught mathematics at Shaw Junior High School in Philadelphia, its secondary schools were staffed with non-teaching assistants assigned to patrol each floor while classes were in session. The district also had police officers at the main entrance and a patrol car parked prominently out front. In a city experiencing violent gang fighting, most parents saw the presence of police officers as reassuring.

From the late 1970s through 1999, the parents and other members of the communities where I worked as a high school administrator and superintendent were concerned whenever a police car appeared at the door of a school building. They saw that as evidence the schools were disorderly or, worse, that drug busts were underway.

That attitude changed following the 1999 Columbine shootings, when two high school students killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher and sent scores of others to the hospital. At that time, I was leading a school district in Duchess County N.Y., whose suburban neighborhoods looked a lot like those around Columbine High School. The shootings occurred in the spring, a time when I convened “coffees” with parents and community groups to discuss the school budgets they would soon be voting on. But no one wanted to talk about the budget or its impact on taxes. Instead, they wanted to talk about security, especially since rumors were circulating that “something was going to happen” in one of our schools.

Soon, newspapers began reporting on discipline incidents that portended the kind of violence witnessed in Colorado. The Poughkeepsie Journal reported that a student in our district had been suspended for creating and disseminating a “hit list,” and two neighboring districts suspended students for bomb threats. On May 5, the day that “something was going to happen,” the Journal described how schools had “stepped up their security.” The newspaper also offered two quotes that would come to frame the policy debate. “There’s a lot of cooperation going on between schools and law enforcement that you didn’t have a few years ago,” New York State Police Capt. Thomas Fazio told the Journal. “It all has to do with one thing: the safety of children.” And a parent in my district said the focus should not be on law enforcement, but rather on helping students respect each other. “Those boys in Colorado were taunted and harassed their whole lives,” she observed. “Maybe we should be talking more about that.”

Twenty years and too many school shootings later, the law enforcement approach to school safety has prevailed. We have spent millions “hardening” schools by providing 24/7 surveillance, sophisticated door and window locks, fencing and “active shooter” drills. We have spent millions more placing police officers or security guards at the school door and in the hallways. And yet schools and social service agencies can’t find the funding they need to help children who struggle with mental health issues and feel disconnected from classmates — problems often associated with school shooters.

Recent Valley News stories illustrate these distorted spending priorities.

When schools opened in 2018, the newspaper reported that New Hampshire schools received $28.8 million to improve school security. Contrast that with the $700,000 New Hampshire legislators announced they were providing to help with youth suicide prevention. New Hampshire spent 40 times as much to “harden” schools as it did to prevent suicides.

Vermont’s priorities are no different. Gov. Phil Scott recently announced that, during his term, the state had allocated $5.5 million for “safety enhancements” to 308 schools. Meanwhile, VtDigger reported that 3,322 children under the age of 9 accessed mental health services in Vermont, nearly double the number from 20 years earlier when the number of students was much higher. How much has the state provided to local districts to help address this problem? I await an article offering the answer.

Could the $28.8 million New Hampshire spent on school security upgrades have provided the funding needed to reduce the state’s youth suicide rate? Could the $5.5 million spent for “security enhancements” at Vermont schools helped support the mental health services Vermont children need?

As Dresden School Board members consider seeking money to pay for a student resource officer, I would encourage them to ask how that money might be spent differently. Could it support the restorative justice initiative at the high school? Could it be used to partner with mental health agencies? And finally, is hiring a student resource officer the best way to support the well-being of students in the district?

Wayne Gersen, of Etna, is the former superintendent of the Dresden School District.

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