Jim Kenyon: On school cop, Lebanon board is punting like it’s 1999

Valley News Columnist
Published: 5/15/2021 10:57:11 PM
Modified: 5/15/2021 11:01:56 PM

I’m still trying to figure out why the Lebanon School Board caved so badly when it came time Wednesday to vote on allowing an armed police officer to continue patrolling school hallways.

The board had an opportunity to show real leadership by declaring that schools and police aren’t a healthy mix.

Instead, it punted.

Seven board members — Chairman Dick Milius, Martha DiDomenico, Tammy Begin, Aaron Mills, Stephen Kantor, Lilian Maughan and Lisa Vallejo Sorensen — voted to fund the school resource officer’s position for another year.

The board also approved hiring an independent consultant to study issues regarding equity and race within the city’s schools before taking up the SRO issue again in the fall. The study “might be a good option to get the emotion out of this,” board member Aaron Mills said.

If only it was that easy. In citywide voting in March, residents narrowly passed a nonbinding warrant article, 1,011-1,006, to ax the position. People either believe cops in schools are a good idea or they don’t.

On Wednesday, Jenica Nelan, the board’s vice chairman, was the lone dissenter, questioning whether her colleagues were “evading” a tough vote.

Why did so many board members exhibit so little backbone?

I think history has a lot to do with it. Or maybe they watch Fox News.

Deploying cops to schools came into vogue following the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on April 20, 1999.

Five months later, school violence was a hot topic at a Lebanon School Board meeting. In 1998, 28 Lebanon High students were involved in fights, school officials reported. Cases of “major insubordination” had led to eight students’ removal from school. One student was found with a knife. Lebanon police were getting called to school once or twice a month.

In the next morning’s Valley News, a board member was quoted as saying, “I wonder whether it wouldn’t be a more peaceful and tranquil place if there was a police officer in the school.”

I’m not sure how stationing a cop with a gun and arrest powers inside a school building could be considered a calming influence. It seems more like a scare tactic.

In 2004, five years after the discussion began, the board approved by a 4-3 vote to bring in a school resource officer, or SRO for short. The vote came after Lebanon police had received $125,000 in federal money spread over three years to help pay the SRO’s salary and benefits. (With the grant money having run out long ago, Lebanon taxpayers now foot the annual $120,000 bill.)

Lebanon attorney Barry Schuster, who served on the School Board from 2000 to 2008, was among those to vote in favor of adding the SRO position 17 years ago. At Wednesday’s meeting, however, Schuster recommended removing police from Lebanon schools.

“The circumstances were very different (in 2004),” Schuster said, citing Columbine and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

I’ve written for nearly a decade about the need to rid schools of a police presence, starting with the case of two Hartford middle school boys who were arrested by a SRO for a skirmish over a lunch tray.

The police reform movement that’s taken off since the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by Minneapolis police last May has led school districts across the country to eliminate SRO positions.

Activists cite data that shows mass shootings in schools are rare and school crime in general has declined over the years. Meanwhile, the “presence of officers in hallways has a profound impact on students of color and those with disabilities, who, according to several analyses and studies, are more likely to be harshly punished for ordinary behavior,” The New York Times wrote in June.

In 2016, a group called Lebanon High School Students of Color Collective began meeting regularly to talk about racial issues, among other things, and offer peer support.

Ahead of the School Board’s vote, the group — about 20 students of color attend at least a couple of meetings a year — took a brave stance. In a letter to the board, the group wrote that it opposes the “concept of police playing an active daily role in our schools. Police officers are not trained to deal with students in trauma.”

The School Board didn’t seem to give much weight to what the students had to say. Although the board’s membership has changed over the years, the mindset is still 1999.

As Schuster pointed out, students would benefit from increased social services, which Lebanon schools are sorely lacking, rather than being watched over by a cop with a badge.

Whether School Board members acknowledge it or not, the culture at Lebanon High is much different than it was 20 or so years ago.

Andrew Gamble remembers what it was like when he began teaching at Lebanon High in 1998. At lunchtime, a half-dozen teachers were assigned to the cafeteria every day to keep the peace.

“We had a little bit of a rough crowd,” said Gamble, president of Lebanon’s teachers union.

He recalled the time that an openly gay student’s car was “keyed” in the school parking lot. “It was a much less tolerant student body than it is now,” Gamble told me. “I can’t recall the last time we had a fight.”

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit more than a year ago, Lebanon’s SRO, Gregory Parthum, hasn’t spent much time at the high school. Due to space constraints brought on by COVID-19, Parthum’s office was moved a couple of miles away to the middle school, which has become his primary patrol duty.

Which school he’ll be working out of when the new school year begins in the fall is anyone’s guess.

Why the School Board thinks a SRO is needed in the first place remains an even bigger question.

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

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