Students stand up

Theo Wells and Deng Aguek, both 7th grade students show their support during a Black Lives Matter gathering at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School.

On the eve of Juneteenth, Vermonters came together as only they safely can during COVID-19 – through a video chat. But the importance of the conversation was no less than if it had been held in the largest of gathering spaces.

Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS hosted “Race and Policing in Vermont,” as a community conversation. The talk came almost one month after the death of George Floyd, a Black man from Minnesota who died after a police officer placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. In Vermont calls for racial justice have manifested in protests across the state including a large gathering in Burlington on May 30.

St. Michael’s College journalism professor Traci Griffith and VPR reporter Peter Hirschfeld moderated a panel of community experts: Xusana Davis, the state’s first-ever executive director of racial equity; Mia Schultz of the Vermont ethnic studies coalition and vice chair of the Bennington democratic party; Ali Dieng, a Burlington City Councilor; John Murad, acting chief of police for the Burlington Police Department and Mark Anderson, Windham County Sheriff and representative of the Vermont Sheriff’s Association.

Police presence in schools

While the conversation covered an array of topics one main focus was on the presence of police officers in Vermont’s public schools.

Having School Resource Officers – those designated to work inside the institutions themselves – helps police connect with the community, “especially communities of color and new American communities of color,” Murad said. He believes those connections build relationships with students, which he said can help prevent enforcement later.

Schultz did not feel the same, at least in terms of School Resource Officers in her town of Bennington.

She said she has heard teachers report disparities in the discipline resource officers give white students versus students of color there.

“When they see an armed officer in the school – and they are armed as far as I know, in the schools – it is not creating a space of communication or community in my eyes and my children’s eyes,” Schultz said.

The success of the school resource officers is anecdotal, Murad said. But, he said, he would love to look at the program with focus groups and through outreach to learn more about what the community thinks of the program.

Dieng, recalling incidents like the Sandy Hook shooting spoke of the need for school safety, but wondered if police were always necessary. “It is all about culture, and culture is what you do when no one is watching,” Dieng said.

He added it’s important for all resource officers to build relationships with students no matter the color of their skin or their sexual orientation.

Schultz said she does not believe having a school resource necessarily prevents school shootings – the real task is helping people before they get to the point of wanting to shoot.

University of Vermont Professor Stephanie Seguino referenced a study that shows students in schools with resource officers are three times more likely to face arrest in school. Being arrested in school has a negative impact on students graduating and can contribute to lifelong trauma, she said.

“The data can tell us, ‘is what we’re doing enough’ and the answer is ‘not yet,’” Seguino said.

State data from 2017 shows Black Vermonters are 350% more likely than their white counterparts to be pulled over and searched – Hispanic drivers are about 270% more likely. Data from 2018 and 2019 is showing those disparities have grown or stayed the same.

Where to?

Following the death of George Floyd have come cries to “defund the police.” The phrase means different things to different people but has been associated with restructuring and reforming police work to adapt to modern day needs from mental health to drug misuse issues. Asked if defunding the police should be on the table, Schultz said yes. She’d like to see towns consider spending funds on therapy and social services to heal community members.

Anderson spoke to the state sheriff department’s efforts to modernize policing, like classifying chokeholds as lethal use of force, working on de-escalation tactics and requiring extensive reports following uses of force.

But, he said, it’s not enough and the department needs to recognize issues of systemic racism and listen to the community.

Schultz said that solving the issues will require hiring people who think outside the box and hold degrees in human behavior: “That’s what we talk about when we talk about defunding. We talk about really getting people who have dedicated their lives to human behavior and trauma.”

“Defunding the police is something, frankly, that most officers would embrace as long as it is done in a way that is sensible and is driven by data and experience and proof that alternative, viable resources for the roles that police currently have been saddled with over the past several decades, are actually able to be stood up so that they are efficacious, and they are fair, and they are really things that will continue to keep people safe,” Murad said.

But cutting funds without strong ways of addressing problems puts public safety at risk, he added

Davis added that the police officers in Atlanta who are accused of shooting and killing black man Rayshard Brooks were both trained in de-escalation and use of force this year. She added we can’t train away systemic racism in a matter of weeks at an academy.

“It takes continuous work, it’s slow work, it’s active thinking on a regular basis,” Davis said. It’s something everyone should work on, she added.

Last words

It will be important for police to listen to their communities and to collect consistent, reliable data, Ander said. Murad added that this is a moment of tremendous opportunity.

“This is something that has beleaguered this nation since its origins, it is a stain on the country’s soul. I think that it is something that is ours to set, right. If we are able to really focus on it,” he said.

Schultz left attendees with a call to listen and believe Black people and people of color. She called for swift change, reminding listeners that people are dying.

“I love Vermont. It’s the most beautiful state. We don’t have a big population, we have so many opportunities to make change here and we can do it if we all listen to each other,” she said.

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