Officers Cpl. Brianne Williamson and Sgt. Dennis Ward

School Resource Officers Cpl. Brianne Williamson and Sgt. Dennis Ward make a Meals on Wheels delivery during the pandemic. South Burlington police have had a presence in South Burlington schools since the 1980s.

Cole Gilder graduated from South Burlington High School in June. During his time at the school, he served as a member of the Student Justice Union and the Black Student Union.

Gilder is biracial and said he faced discrimination at times during his school experience, particularly in middle school.

“I just did not feel welcome there. There were a lot of comments made to me about my race,” he said.

While his high school experience was better, because of programming like the Black Student and Social Justice unions, overall, he said there isn’t much in the way of racial studies curriculum in South Burlington schools.

Gilder spoke about police presence in school in light of national conversations about race and policing. He was “never really bothered” by the school resource officer program, but that after recent events across the country he believes it can be nerve wracking to have officers in school.

“I can imagine that students of color might feel uncomfortable by the presence of all these officers in the school. For me, it’s uncomfortable to be in the same building with somebody who has a loaded firearm,” he said.

Gilder said he felt the title “School Resource Officer” was a bit ambiguous.

“I never really knew what resources they were providing. We have counselors and so my immediate thought was, ‘Oh, they’re like counselors, but I don’t know if I’m going to really share private information with a police officer. That’s what our counselors are for,’” he said.

Gilder said the resource officers could often be found in the halls during class periods, asking students where they were going.

“This can be seen as a form of stopping and frisking of students much like the stop and frisk laws in New York made by Mayor Bloomberg,” he said.

Police’s role

The presence school resource officers has come under scrutiny in the wake of instances of alleged police brutality, like the death of George Floyd, a Black man from Minnesota, at the hands of police officers.

Sgt. Dennis Ward can often be seen strolling around the South Burlington cafeteria to catch up with students when school is in session.

It’s part of becoming a familiar and a trusted face, he said.

Police in South Burlington schools dates to the mid-1980s, before widespread School Resource officer programs, Ward said.

Last year, the South Burlington School District had three resource officers – one dedicated to the middle school, another to the high school and the last splitting time between the three elementary schools.

The job of resource officers is threefold: serving as a counselor, teacher and law enforcer, according to Ward.

“Our hope is they see us as a resource that they can count on and rely on if they have an issue that needs addressing,” he said.

Ward believes the job allows him and colleagues Officer Brianne Williamson and Cpl. Andrew Traynor the opportunity to connect with young people in a venue outside the norm and create lasting bonds.

“These relationships humanize the uniform in a way that builds trust,” Police Chief Shawn Burke said.

As teachers, the resource officers instruct D.A.R.E., a national drug misuse and violence education course, and pitch in with driver’s and health education, Ward said.

But often the benefit comes just from being present, he added.

“We build relationships by talking to kids when, hopefully, they’re not in crisis. They can talk to us in a calm voice and we can help them,” Ward said.

Ward visits lunch and keeps his office door open. He finds that students will stop by to discuss their weekends, talk through personal problems or ask him questions about policing.

The officers also participate in emergency planning at the schools, Ward said, and serve as a first line of defense should something happen.

Ward believes resource officers have made a positive impact in the district, but acknowledges there are students who may not feel comfortable with police in school. His hope is that they can make connections that will help alleviate their fear of the police.

The impact of officers in schools

Stephanie Seguino is a professor of economics at the University of Vermont and a former Burlington School Board member. She has conducted research on race and policing in Vermont.

She believes it is time to ask what schools’ goals are and if resource officers are the best way to achieve them. It is important to weigh the costs and benefits of officer programs, with a key cost being the impact of police presence on students. And those conversations should include students, she said.

“The issue, often, in these discussions is that it is often white elite parents that think that SROs are great in the schools, she said – but students of color or those with individual education plans are the ones left out. “Typically the people in decision making positions, such as on school boards don’t come from those demographics. So they are unaware of the negative effects on kids.”

Research shows students are three times more likely to be arrested in schools with resource officers Seguino said – arrests are disproportionately made against students of color and students on individualized educational plans.

And it’s important for communities to remember where resource officer programs come from, Seguino said: the programs originated in the 1980s during the “War on Drugs and zero tolerance policies,” she said.

The warring strategy was proven to disproportionately impact people of color, she said.

“Crime rates have fallen quite dramatically since the 1980s. So, it’s really a moment to pause and think about what do we want for our children and schools,” she said.

For those who have experienced trauma in their lives, seeing police in school can be triggering, she said.

Schools could use resources like social workers, psychologists or teachers trained in trauma informed behavioral management to help students regulate their behavior, she said.

“The central issue is that we understand now that excluding kids from school and punishing them as though they’re bad, is really a mistaken understanding of adolescent behavior and the causes of dysregulation,” Seguino said.

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