November 25, 2020
Editor’s Note: This article was updated 12/14 with further comments from school resource officer Matt Collins, and more information about a board meeting in February.
Several members of the Champlain Valley School District community, mainly high school faculty, opposed keeping a relatively new school resource officer position during a school board meeting Tuesday Nov. 17.
CVU has had a school officer for the past year. At the Oct. board meeting, SRO Matt Collins and Adam Bunting made a presentation about the first year of the position. The presentation was largely positive.
“The biggest part of the job is relationship building,” said Collins in a later interview on Dec. 10. The position includes talking to students, identifying security problems at the school, and dealing with law enforcement issues like traffic accidents, he said. He has also given presentations in the school and been involved in classroom lessons, he said.
SROs are trained to respond in an active shooter situation, said Collins. “Statistically, having somebody in the school trained to do that reduces the amount of people that get injured or killed in a worst case scenario like an active shooter,” he said.
At the Nov. 17 meeting, members of the community said the position of SRO is ineffective and creates an unsafe environment for students of color.
“The Hinesburg Equity Group recognizes the importance of student safety and mental health, and we believe the presence of a school resource officer is not an effective strategy of support for student and community needs,” said Christina Deeley on behalf of the Hinesburg Equity Group.
The group has student members that feel that an armed SRO creates an environment of hostility and anxiety, Deely said.
Peter Langella, a librarian and co-advisor to the CVU Racial Alliance Committee, read a statement from high school student Bene Yodishembo on her perspective on the school officer position.
Yodishembo cited the school board’s denouncement of racism this summer.
“The harsh reality is that racism is built into almost every institution in this country. Whether we want to believe it is or not, policing doesn’t fall far from that tree,” she wrote.
She also related her positive personal relationship with Collins, as well as her discomfort with police as a Black student.
“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say that every time I see any kind of cop that my first instinct isn’t to look for other Black students and see if they’re safe or not,” Yodishembo wrote.
Many CVU faculty members, like Lacey Richards, a social studies teacher, advocated for using the money currently allocated to the SRO for something more productive.
“I disagree with the perceived benefit of having an armed police officer on campus when we could instead be investing that money in preventative measures like more social workers and mental health practitioners in our schools,” she said.
Several faculty members urged the board to listen to outside research on the topic. Janelle Moynihan, a speech and language pathologist at CVU, cited research from the University of Vermont, a Vermont Legal Aid statement, and an American Civil Liberties Union police reform plan as evidence in opposition to the idea that SROs create safer communities.
“If we’re not listening to these voices,” she said, “then I think we need to ask whose comfort and safety we are valuing and whose voices we are centering by having an armed SRO at CVU.”
Jess Lemieux, a science teacher, talked about how her feelings on the SRO have evolved since the position was first proposed. Though she initially felt comforted by the position, she said, “I am not safer with an SRO and our students of color are less safe.”
Almost every speaker expressed that they had no animosity towards Collins, rather towards the position itself.
“We are here to unroot the system that the individual works for, which brings more harm than good to students of color,” wrote Yodishembo in her student statement.
“It would be a loss to the school if he was gone,” said Damon Ross in an interview on Dec. 11. Ross said that he has a very close relationship with Collins and feels safer with him in the building.
The topic of the SRO was not up for formal board discussion on Nov. 17. As of Dec. 10, the topic is set to be discussed in one of the February board meetings as a report to the board, likely from Adam Bunting, said Lynne Jaunich, chair of the CVSD school board.
There was some discussion among board members about whether delaying the discussion made sense. In his statement to the board, librarian Peter Langella said that he viewed the SRO conversation as a funding issue that should take place before the end of budget season.
CORRECTION 12/10: A previous version of this article misidentified the surname of the CVU school resource officer. The officer’s surname is Collins, not Nelson.
The Community News Service is a project of the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program.