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Jim Kenyon: Dresden resource officer proposal raises security concerns

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 12/17/2019 10:11:28 PM
Modified: 12/17/2019 10:11:21 PM

The Dresden School Board is looking into private funding sources to help pay for an armed police officer to patrol the hallways at Hanover High School. It just so happens a well-known national nonprofit has offered free money to communities “focused on improving school security” since 2012.

It’s called the National Rifle Association.

Joining forces with the country’s most powerful gun lobby might not sit well with the good liberals of Hanover and Norwich — the two towns that make up the Dresden district — but I say, why not?

If Hanover and Norwich residents really have fallen under the gun lobby’s spell that the best defense against school shootings is more firepower, the NRA is their ideal partner.

“Our kids are our responsibility. It’s not just our duty to protect them, it’s our right to protect them,” states the NRA’s School Shield program.

Plenty of schools, including several in the Upper Valley, already have so-called school resource officers. They came in vogue following the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. (The NRA has proposed putting an armed police officer in every U.S. school.) But is it an effective strategy?

“The extent to which the presence of a (school resource officer) has prevented a school shooting, however, is unknown,” according to a 2018 Congressional Research Service report.

Since the Columbine shooting, the idea of employing a school cop has come up from time to time in Hanover and Norwich, but has gained little traction — until now.

The Dresden board heard details about the proposal last month. A community forum is planned for early 2020.

“The community forum is essential,” Dresden School Board chairman Neil Odell said in an interview with Valley News staff writer Sarah Earle last month. “I really have no idea as to where folks sit on this right now.”

Dresden Superintendent Jay Badams told me that some families in both towns have expressed concerns about what they perceive as inadequate school security. Some parents would like to see armed cops in all four schools in the two towns, he said.

When we talked on Monday, Badams wouldn’t say whether he supports the proposal, but he had “good results” with school resource officers when he was superintendent in Erie, Pa., for seven years before taking Dresden’s helm in 2017.

Badams acknowledged there are “mixed reviews” nationally on the effectiveness of school resource officers in preventing school shootings.

Still it’s worth considering for other reasons, he said. Improved communication between students and police is one. “So much depends on finding the right person for the job,” Badams said. “There needs to be a trusting relationship so you don’t create a prison-like, lock-down atmosphere.”

Regardless of who has the job, putting a cop in Hanover High could “change school culture and environment,” Badams said. But in the age of increased school violence across the country, “not to have the discussion would be negligent,” he added.

Maybe in Trump’s America, civil liberties get short shrift. I’d still like to believe, however, that Hanover and Norwich residents aren’t so obsessed with school security that they’ve dismissed the ramifications.

Having a cop on the premises will almost guarantee that students leave their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door. Research findings “suggest that the presence of (school resource officers) might increase the chances that students are arrested for some low-level offenses such as disorderly conduct,” the 2018 congressional report stated.

Here’s a cautionary tale that I’ve written about a few times:

In January 2012, a minor scuffle broke out in a Hartford Middle School hallway between a few boys during lunch period. No injuries that required medical attention were reported. The school’s “resource officer” still found cause to arrest two eighth-graders.

The scariest part? The resource officer didn’t witness the incident. The boys were called into the principal’s office, where they spilled their guts without a parent or lawyer present.

The principal relayed what the boys had told him to the school cop. After being charged with disorderly conduct, one boy, who was living in a White River Junction motel with his family, was allowed to enter Windsor County’s restorative justice program in exchange for admitting guilt. The father of the other boy refused to allow police to fingerprint his 14-year-old son and vowed to fight the disorderly conduct charge in juvenile court.

The dad, a delivery truck driver, sold Christmas trees to help pay for a lawyer. Windsor County prosecutors dropped the case, the boy’s father told me.

Communities have long depended on the federal government to help pay for school cops. At the moment, however, the “seed money” appears to have dried up. The Trump administration is fixated on using tax dollars to arm teachers. (I was almost afraid to ask, but Badams assured me that isn’t under consideration in Hanover.)

Although a price tag hasn’t been determined, Badams figures it could cost the district roughly $100,000 a year to bring in a school cop, which has the ringing endorsement of Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis.

I’d much rather see Hanover and Norwich put the money into expanding services for students that might prevent shootings in the first place, such as anti-bullying campaigns, community-building and inclusion efforts, and additional mental health offerings.

Instead of exploring ways to create a false sense of security inside Hanover High walls, Dresden school officials’ time could be better spent at the Statehouse, advocating for stricter gun laws. A ban on assault weapons would be a good place to start.

Regardless of what the school board decides, the earliest that Hanover and Norwich could get its school cop would be 2021, Badams told me.

The NRA beckons.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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