Jim Kenyon: Needed or not, police patrol the halls of some Upper Valley schools

  • Sgt. Paul Favreau, 52, of Brattleboro, a retired Vermont state trooper, is nearing the end of his second year as school resource officer at Windsor High School, and also serves in that position at Hartland Elementary and Albert Bridge School. Favreau was photographed in Windsor, Vt., on Friday, July 24, 2020. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Windsor Police Sgt. Paul Favreau, 52, of Brattleboro, is the school resource officer at Windsor High School, Hartland Elementary and Albert Bridge School. Favreau retired after 28 years with the Vermont State Police in 2018, and said he would like to continue serving in his current position for about eight more years. “When I hit 60, I want to mellow out,” he said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Lebanon School Resource Officer Greg Parthum cleans up after heating pipes burst in the science wing of Lebanon High School in Lebanon, N.H., Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 8/1/2020 9:15:42 PM
Modified: 8/1/2020 9:33:04 PM

In the national campaign to “defund the police” — or at least, scale back law enforcement’s reach — getting cops out of schools is arguably a good place to start.

Criminal justice reform activists assert a police presence fuels the “school-to-prison” pipeline and does little to make schools safer. Money could be better spent on placing more social workers and mental health professionals inside schools, they say.

For years, the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups have tried to convince the public that sworn police officers have no business patrolling school hallways.

But the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by police on a Minneapolis street on Memorial Day, has bolstered the argument through the Black Lives Matter movement. Black students are disproportionately arrested and punished, activists say.

School districts from Richmond, Va., to Seattle are taking steps to remove so-called school resource officers — SROs, for short — from public schools.

But what about the Upper Valley?

A half-dozen school districts — covering more than 20 schools and grades K-12 — have armed police officers with arrest powers on their campuses at various times during the day. At some schools, SROs are so entrenched in the culture that they have an office inside the building. But they still take their marching orders from police headquarters.

“The problem I have is that their role is often not defined,” said George Ostler, a Norwich criminal defense attorney who has practiced in the Upper Valley for more than 35 years. “Are they cops or school administrators? They’re certainly not teachers. They have police powers. It’s deceiving to call them school resource officers.”

In the Upper Valley, each SRO costs local taxpayers about $100,000 annually in salary and benefits with municipalities and school districts often splitting the bill.

The U.S. Justice Department, through its “COPS in Schools” grant program, often provides seed money for school and police partnerships focused on “school crime, drug use, and discipline problems.”

SROs date back to the 1950s, but they didn’t come into vogue until the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999. Lebanon and Claremont were among the Upper Valley communities to take advantage of the federal giveaway — $750 million in grants — that resulted in the hiring of more than 6,500 new SROs nationwide between 1999 and 2005, according to The Atlantic.

At Lebanon High, the faculty wasn’t “comfortable with having someone with a gun in the school,” said Andrew Gamble, who heads the teachers union. But, he said, “it was sold to us as community policing — to show that police aren’t scary, but someone that students can go to for help.”

Gamble described Lebanon’s longtime SRO, Gregory Parthum, as a “really good person.” He invites Parthum to his civics classes to talk with students about their constitutional rights when stopped by police.

The union’s membership hasn’t had a chance to discuss the pros and cons of having a cop in the school since the “conversation has come back into the national spotlight,” Gamble said. But in informal talks with his colleagues this summer, Gamble said, teachers prefer the money be spent on social services.

Lebanon schools don’t have any social workers on staff. A few years ago, Lebanon added full-time psychologists at the city’s four schools, Superintendent Joanne Roberts said. The school district also employs two “student-assistance providers,” who focus on drug and alcohol issues.

The ACLU’s aptly named 2019 “Cops and No Counselors” report found 10 million students are in schools with police but no social workers.

In the same report, the ACLU said there’s no data indicating that police in schools improve students’ mental health, educational outcomes or safety.

“When in schools, police do what they are trained to do — detain, handcuff and arrest,” the report said.

Since the vast majority of offenses that occur in schools involve juveniles, the public’s access to information about individual cases is difficult to come by.

But when I asked, most Upper Valley police departments shared records that listed offenses SROs brought against unnamed students and how the cases were handled during the last few years. Simple assault, possession of marijuana, theft and vandalism were among the most common offenses.

The good news: SROs in the Upper Valley make few arrests and nearly all cases are dealt with outside the courts.

But that doesn’t mean kids are going unpunished by police, and they can still face school sanctions, including suspensions.

In Lebanon, 11 of 12 cases that came out of the high school and junior high between Jan. 1, 2018, and Dec. 31, 2019, were referred to a court diversion program. In exchange for giving up their constitutional right to contest charges, teens often agree to perform community service, but don’t end up with criminal records.

“Our primary goal is to keep cases out of the courts and the juvenile justice system,” Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello said.

But sometimes making a kid go through a diversion program seems extreme. In February 2019, a Lebanon High student was sent to diversion for an offense that went down in police records as indecent exposure. The offense: urinating in a snow bank in the school parking lot.

In an email, Lebanon High Principal Ian Smith told me that school administrators are “not involved with the decision-making process regarding how the police choose to pursue cases and charges where SRO intervention is required.”

Nor does the SRO tell the school “which situations and misbehaviors end up resulting in students having to go to court (or) diversion,” Smith said.

Police, in general, are “getting better at tailoring our responses to specific situations,” said Newport Police Chief Brent Wilmot, who was Claremont’s deputy chief before coming to town in March.

In the 21 years since the Columbine mass shooting, which was carried out by two students, the role of school resource officers has evolved, Claremont Police Chief Mark Chase told me.

“It’s not the same program,” he said, pointing out that the city’s SRO is involved in teaching health and driver’s education classes. She spends time at the city’s three elementary schools, along with Stevens High and Claremont Middle School.

Police have come to understand that it’s often best to leave punishment to school officials, Chase said. State law and courts have pivoted in that direction as well.

“If I brought a kid in now who was caught in school with a joint in his pocket, after the school had already suspended him and done a substance (disorder) risk assessment, my local judge would be rolling his eyes,” Chase said.

Last year, the Hartland School Board voted to spend $35,000 for a part-time SRO at the town’s K-8 school.

“There were a lot of reservations about doing it,” School Board Chairman Nicole Buck said.

The decision to go the SRO route came after the school “went into lockdown several times” in early 2019 because of incidents that had the “potential to turn violent,” said Buck, who has lived in town for 20 years and has children in the school.

The first time, an angry parent showed up in the school parking lot, claiming to have a firearm. A teacher also reported that she was being stalked by a person who lived within walking distance of the school, Buck said.

Having a police presence in a rural elementary school with 275 students does “seem out of place,” Principal Christine Bourne said, “but we had a unique situation.”

Hartland, which has about 3,500 residents, doesn’t have a police force. The town pays Vermont State Police to patrol and respond to emergency calls, but the nearest troopers’ barracks is 35 miles away.

The school board reached out to neighboring Windsor, which already has an SRO. Without a town police force, “this is what we felt we had to do,” Buck said.

Last September, Windsor’s SRO, Sgt. Paul Favreau, began spending two hours of each school day in Hartland. Under its agreement with the school board, Windsor police also respond 24/7 to “school-related incidents that require police attention.”

Before signing off on the agreement, Bourne and the board established ground rules. For starters, Favreau is not involved in school discipline matters. He’s only allowed to talk with students about an issue after a parent grants permission.

Favreau, 52, spent 28 years with the state police, including a lengthy stint on the drug task force, before retiring in early 2018.

He heard from Windsor Police Chief Bill Sampson that the town was looking for an SRO to work in its K-12 schools, which are rolled into one campus. The SRO also covers Albert Bridge School, the elementary school in Brownsville.

Favreau, who has a master’s degree in public administration, took the job, partly for a change of pace. In his last state police assignment, he was a patrol commander.

Now Favreau spends his days roaming school hallways, chatting with students in the cafeteria and on the playground. (He has an office in Windsor’s school complex, but not in Hartland.)

When he started in Hartland, students asked, “Why is there a police officer in the school?” Now, he said, he’s “just part of the school.”

Between September 2019 and when school ended in March due to the coronavirus, Favreau handled three “juvenile problems” in Hartland, according to police reports that Sampson provided. No arrests were reported.

Favreau’s duties also include serving as Hartland’s truancy officer. “The school can send letters all day, but some parents don’t listen until it goes to a higher level,” Buck said.

Last year, a group of school administrators, teachers and community members was tasked with finding ways the Mascoma Valley Regional School District could “best serve” its students.

The group’s recommendations included hiring a social worker for the grade 5-8 Indian River School. The School Board added the position, which pays $55,000 a year.

“It was very clear to us that we need to better understand and help some of our at-risk families,” Superintendent Amanda Isabelle said.

The district already has a social worker at Mascoma Valley Regional High School. Although the coronavirus pandemic closed schools in March, the social worker remains busy, including delivering food to students and families.

The district also contracts with Canaan police for an SRO who covers the high school and middle school, which are located on the same campus in West Canaan.

While SROs can play a role in school safety, they’re not a substitute for social workers who are trained to work with students and families in crisis, Isabelle said. When a social worker knocks on a family’s door, the reception is often different than when an armed police officer shows up. “With social workers there is a little more element of trust,” Isabelle said.

There’s a perception that social workers are “there to help you,” she added.

Last November, Dresden School District began looking into hiring an SRO for Hanover High School.

At the time, Superintendent Jay Badams acknowledged that an armed cop could “change school culture and environment.” But in an age of increased school violence across the country, “not to have the discussion would be negligent,” he told me.

The Hanover High Council, which consists of students, staff and community members, were not “overly enthusiastic” about the idea, School Board Chairwoman Kelly McConnell told me recently.

The board wasn’t sold either.

“We wrestled with some of the situations we were hearing about around the country, particularly with students with learning disabilities who were having negative outcomes,” McConnell said.

A 2017 analysis by Education Week, an independent news journal, showed that students with disabilities, along with students of color, are more likely to be harshly punished for misbehavior.

“There was clearly a lot to talk about,” McConnell said. “It required more fleshing out.”

The board was planning to hold community forums, but then the coronavirus hit. McConnell doesn’t expect the debate will resurface anytime soon.

Woodstock Union High School appears headed in the opposite direction. The Windsor Central Supervisory Union, which is based in Woodstock, is working with “local law enforcement to apply for a (SRO) grant,” Interim Superintendent Sherry Sousa wrote in an email.

In addition to the district’s high school, the SRO would cover the adjacent middle school, Sousa said.

If any Upper Valley community was thinking about adding an SRO, Randolph would have been my guess.

In November 2014, two teenage boys were taken into police custody for allegedly making threats on Facebook against other Randolph Union High School students.

The boys, ages 14 and 15, were locked up — at least, temporarily — at the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex, Vt. (Since they were juveniles, the public wasn’t privy to the outcome of their cases.)

Just the threat of school violence can be enough for many communities and schools to bring in an SRO. “I’m sure there are people who thought that would have been an appropriate next step,” said Principal Elijah Hawkes, who has headed up the town’s high school and middle school for nine years.

“It comes up occasionally in conversations about school safety and concerns about external threats, but it’s not a conversation that has persisted for very long,” Hawkes said.

“Adolescence can be a time of extremism. Young people are learning to be adults.”

Reed McCracken is principal at White River Valley High School in South Royalton. Early in his career, he taught at an urban high school in Alameda, Calif., a community plagued with gang violence. He didn’t mind having a cop in the hallways.

But at White River Valley, which has 150 students, he doesn’t see the need.

Besides, he said, Royalton’s police station is only a half-mile away.

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

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