Northfield Selectboard looks to restart talks on school resource officer with Pioneer

A police cruiser parks outside the entrance to the Northfield Police Station, located in the basement of Northfield Town Hall at 69 Main St.

A police cruiser parks outside the entrance to the Northfield Police Station, located in the basement of Northfield Town Hall at 69 Main St. Staff File Photo

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 02-14-2024 10:19 AM

NORTHFIELD — More than six months after the Pioneer Valley Regional School District School Committee unanimously declined to reinstate its school resource officer position, the Selectboard is signaling, by consensus, its desire to restart the conversation around the position.

Selectboard member Heath Cummings argues the board should re-approach the school district to try to bring back the school resource officer position, which has been a topic of discussion at the school for more than a year.

In the face of what he said were 11 “fairly serious calls” to Pioneer Valley Regional and Northfield Elementary schools this school year, as well as a 2023 school shooting threat at the elementary school, Cummings said a school resource officer can help protect students and staff while also serving as a positive role model through community policing initiatives.

“I couldn’t disagree more with anything I think I’ve been involved in with the town politics since I’ve been here,” said Cummings, who once served as Pioneer’s school resource officer. “The cost of not having that person in the school is a dollar amount I don’t think any parent wants to pay.”

During a discussion last week, the Selectboard emphasized a school resource officer is not to be a disciplinarian — although that is certainly part of the job — but to be a role model for students and someone kids can trust if they need help, whether it is for cyberbullying, drug education or any other topic.

While the decision was somewhat recent, School Committee Chair Reina Dastous said the committee is willing to restart the conversation if people are interested in talking about it again.

“It hasn’t been a very long time, but I think we’re open to looking at things again and having more discussions,” Dastous said. “Things change and evolve over time and we’re willing to take a look at where we are now.”

On the heels of their vote, Dastous said some school staff members — including several of the guidance and adjustment counselors that had spoke during public comment in the July meeting — said they wanted to focus on implementing the district’s restorative justice initiatives.

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“They wanted some space to do that work and we wanted to give them that,” she said.

Police Chief Jon Hall said in a phone interview he has been wanting to bring back the school resource officer position for several years, both as a parent and as chief of police.

“What they have in front of them is a police department that is all about the community,” Hall said, noting he had just started in the role in 2021 when these initial discussions kicked off. “It matters to me because I live in Northfield and my daughters are 9 and 11. … I know other parents feel the same way.”

Prior to July’s vote, the school district and the Police Department had crafted a memorandum of understanding laying out the school resource officer’s role, required training and other policies. The agreement also would have allowed either the district or the Police Department to withdraw from the partnership through a written notification. While the district had budgeted $30,000 for the position to reimburse the town for work hours at the school, all other expenses would have been covered by the Police Department.

If the School Committee is interested, Hall said he’d be happy to make things work, although some of the department’s priorities may have to shift because one of its full-time officers would then be working out of Pioneer.

“The police are not used car salesmen. I have it if they want it, but I’m not going begging,” Hall said. “If they came back to me now, I would make it work because safety for the kids is paramount.”

Cummings referenced outreach efforts in the fall regarding the district facilities planning process, which involved community forums and surveys. He said he’d like to see a similar process for the school resource officer.

“There was nowhere near that amount of effort and I think that position at least deserves the community’s input because it is the largest chunk of money this town pays for its taxes and they deserve to have a say with what’s going on up there,” Cummings said, referencing education expenses. “If they did a community survey and if that showed the community wasn’t interested, I guess that would satisfy me at least.”

On top of the rejection in July, Selectboard members also expressed their disappointment in how the voting process played out. The School Committee held an initial meeting to discuss the matter on July 20, but a posting error prevented a vote on the same evening, so the School Committee scheduled a subsequent meeting the following week on July 25 at the same time as a Northfield Selectboard meeting.

Dastous emphasized again it was just a posting error and the School Committee held off on the discussion on July 20 to ensure compliance with the Open Meeting Law.

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com.