If Champlain Valley Union High School rid itself of a school resource officer, there would be a void, according to Matt Collins, who currently holds the job.
Collins, a Shelburne Police officer who has been at CVU since March 2019, has been outspoken about his position, including in a recent letter to the editor that appeared in this newspaper.
The presence of school resource officers has proven controversial both in the Champlain Valley School District and nationally, particularly after the death of George Floyd.
Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25 of this year. The killing sparked rallies, protests and calls for reorganization of the police system at large.
Some teachers, students and members of the community have said CVU should get rid of the position of school resource officer.
Student Bene Yodishembo wrote a statement to the school board saying the opposition to the school resource officer was not in opposition to an individual, but “to the system that the individual works for, which brings more harm than good to students of color.”
“As a Black student in this district, I’ve had a front row seat as the school board denounced racism of any kind,” she wrote, as previously reported.
At a Nov. 17 school board meeting, teachers shared viewpoints, many opposed to police in the school system, saying the money budgeted for a school resource office may be better spent elsewhere.
The ongoing discussion about police presence within the school comes about as budget talks begin again.
Collins said earlier this month, “To see and hear what other police officers are doing around the country affects me and bothers me more than it bothers just the average individual. I’m part of CVU and CVU is part of me.”
Couldn’t be replaced by a counselor
Collins said counseling is part of what he does with students, but his position could not be replaced by a counselor.
Counselors have very valuable skills and training that he does not have, but he has unique skills and training, too, Collins said. There is a necessary collaboration between counselors and school resource officers, just as it is when out-of-school police officers work with counselors.
Collins said that collaboration happens at CVU.
The school has five full-time counselors, two part-time counselors, two social workers and a specially trained counselor, he said.
“Do they really need to get rid of an SRO and put another counselor here? No,” Collins said.
In a worst-case-scenario situation, the school could face a threat a counselor isn’t going to be able to confront, he said.
He said if there was a violent situation at the school, he has more than 20 years of law enforcement training to approach it. Hopefully, he would be able to de-escalate or neutralize a threat.
Although he believes Hinesburg has a great police department, it covers around 40 square miles and it could take 10-15 minutes before an officer got to the school.
“Every incident from an active shooter and a violent threat is over in five to seven minutes,” Collins said.
Trying to speak to as many students as possible
The first responsibility of a school resource officer is building relationships with students, Collins explained.
“I’m new here still and it’s the biggest school in the state. I’m trying to try to meet and speak to as many students as I can,” he said. “It’s a work in progress, work that I’m passionate about.”
He continued, “My goal is to be the person they can come to.”
He doesn’t believe he can walk into a classroom and interject his point of view, will to meet with any group of students or one-on-one.
“I have not been invited to the table to do that. So, it’s a one-sided conversation,” Collins said.
One student told him about horrific things that happened, things not shared with family or friends, because of the relationship the two had built, Collins said.
He said he does feel like he’s judged by people who don’t know him personally just because he’s a police officer.
“If I said it didn’t affect me that would be a lie, but the thing is you have to know how to deal with that stuff when you’re a police officer,” Collins said. “I will continue to be somebody who listens and is willing to hear the hard questions.”
He said when CVU became one of the first schools to raise the Black Lives Matter flag he was there because he supported it.
School board chair Lynn Jaunich said the school resource officer position will likely be on the agenda for the first meeting in February. The board has asked CVU principal Adam Bunting to get feedback from students about the issue.
Jaunich said she doesn’t have an opinion about whether the school should have a resource officer and would wait until they discuss it. She wants to hear more local data before making a decision.