Pioneer School Committee hears case for SRO, vote pushed to Tuesday

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 07-21-2023 2:25 PM

NORTHFIELD — A decision on whether the Pioneer Valley Regional School District will reinstate its school resource officer position will come Tuesday, as the School Committee ruminates on statements for and against the position from staff members and the community.

Several people appeared before the School Committee Thursday evening to share their thoughts about the effectiveness — and necessity — of a school resource officer, with several of the district’s counselors saying more investment is needed in mental and emotional health initiatives. A handful of residents, including two Selectboard members and Police Chief Jon Hall, however, urged the committee to approve the position on a trial basis, noting that if either the Police Department or school are unsatisfied, the agreement can be reworked or canceled.

“I feel we’re all actually on the same page — we want what’s best for the kids, the students and the community at the school, and that’s definitely what I want,” Hall said. “If we take a chance on this, we’ll keep evaluating the program and if it’s not liked by the school, we’ll go from there.”

In its approved budget for fiscal year 2024, Pioneer has dedicated $30,000 toward funding a school resource officer.

The School Committee had originally intended to vote on the position on Thursday, but a meeting posting error prevented it from doing so, according to Chair Reina Dastous. Instead, the board is calling a meeting at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, July 25, to finish its deliberations and take a vote.

Restorative justice considerations

Before Hall spoke, several of the district’s adjustment and guidance counselors said the presence of a school resource officer would mean bringing the Police Department into the school, which could “undermine” the district’s efforts to create a safe school community and its restorative justice initiatives.

School librarian Rachel Dowd cited a 2021 investigation from The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, that found school policing “disproportionately affects students with disabilities, Black students and in some states, Native American and Latino students.”

“The presence of a police officer in schools could have an adverse effect on the mental health and safety of marginalized students,” Dowd said.

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Dowd’s statements were followed by adjustment counselor Kat Freeman and middle school guidance counselor Charity O’Connor, who said police are rarely necessary in school — although their partnership is greatly appreciated — and this is a chance for the district to invest in relationships with students.

“I believe that, instead of increasing policing in our school, the way to build a connected, and therefore safer, community is by investing in our relationships with each other, investing in strengthening students’ sense of belonging, and helping students feel comfortable and confident about who they are,” Freeman said. “This is an important moment to center what we value as a community.”

Selectboard member and former Pioneer School Resource Officer Heath Cummings emphasized that the role brings many benefits, and that it “is not a disciplinarian” — discipline, he noted, is only “one small slice” of the job. The officer also talks to students about cyberbullying, distracted driving and drug education, among other topics.

“The biggest part was that community building and I had gotten certified in almost every level of education you could have gotten to bolster school safety … and a lot of it went along the lines of restorative justice,” Cummings said. “If there were that worst-case scenario, where something were to happen, you want that person there. I can’t imagine making the decision to not have an SRO here and then have to live with the fact that it could have cost somebody a very high price to pay because of the decision that was made.”

He added that a school resource officer can be a collaborative partner with the school’s restorative justice initiatives and reducing the job to just its security aspects creates “misconceptions of what an SRO could do in a school.”

School Committee deliberation

After hearing from the community, School Committee members briefly discussed their thoughts on the school resource officer, with Dastous acknowledging that it’s “been a tough issue to grapple with.”

“There are no simple answers,” Dastous said. “We’ve tried to take a deep dive on the effects of a school resource officer on a school community. … We do try to make an informed decision and we try to make a careful choice in who is in our schools, and we try to be cognizant of how it affects all of the members of our community.”

School Committee member Stephen Martin, who added he previously worked as a federal officer in Devens before becoming a physician, said he doesn’t see a problem in the school that can only be addressed by a school resource officer.

“What is the problem for which a school resource officer is the solution?” he said. “If we’re concerned about safety, then I’m not sure an SRO really addresses that. If we’re concerned about the need for more social work as the chief mentioned, then let’s please invest in social work. It strikes me that mixing the two institutions doesn’t serve either of them necessarily well, even as we work to develop long-term and healthy partnerships with our neighbors.”

Nathan Swartz, Warwick’s non-voting representative on the School Committee, said the Curriculum and Personnel Subcommittee approved the role on the basis of the draft memorandum of understanding, which clearly lays out the responsibilities of the school resource officer and contains language that allows the agreement to easily be adjusted or canceled. Swartz was the chair of the subcommittee before Warwick officially separated from the district at the end of the June.

“An MOU is a hard thing to explain, but that’s something I think can be addressed if this is done properly,” he said. “In talking with members of the Northfield Police Department, they are taking the right approach to it. I wouldn’t have recommended it if I had not thought that.”

Martin said a school resource officer “seems like a disproportionate move” for problems that don’t necessarily require a police officer.

“Is it a matter of ongoing violence? No. Is it a matter of the school is in turmoil? No,” Martin said. “This is about the role of a law enforcement officer being in a school building every school day. Kids and adults don’t read MOUs.

“Why go outside the building, to help the building’s culture? I don’t understand that,” Martin added.

School Committee member Michele Giarusso said she feels the committee doesn’t have “ownership” of a school resource officer — the school approves the appointment of an officer, but the Police Department selects the person for the role — unlike how the committee is tasked with hiring a superintendent or other administrators. She added her kids went to school when the D.A.R.E. program was in schools and “it didn’t make a difference in their age group.”

“My thought is the $30,000 we would we be spending, I think should go toward counseling for our children and other programs. … From my perspective right now, I feel the money can be better spent in other areas,” Giarusso said. “Maybe we need to look at this a little bit longer. I’d hate to make rash decisions without more documentation.”

In closing the discussion and preparing for Tuesday’s vote, Dastous said they’ll have “some work to do in terms of communicating with the community about what an SRO is and what it can and can’t do.”

“We have a lot to think about,” she said. “We are open to more feedback from the community.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.

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