Pioneer School Committee opts against school resource officer

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 07-26-2023 7:52 PM

NORTHFIELD — After taking the weekend to process community feedback, the Pioneer Valley Regional School District School Committee declined to reinstate its school resource officer position.

In a unanimous vote on Tuesday, the School Committee opted to keep a daily police presence out of the district, but signaled its intention to continue to partner with the Northfield Police Department in other ways. The district had dedicated $30,000 toward funding the school resource officer in its fiscal year 2024 budget.

The vote comes after numerous community members sent in written comments and appeared before the board last week to share their thoughts on the position. Among those sharing their feelings on the matter were school staff members, particularly guidance and adjustment counselors, which the School Committee said was a key perspective to take into account.

School Committee member Karen O’Neil said the comments from staff were important to consider because they “see our district’s children every day they’re in school and are devoted to providing a just, safe and healthy response to whatever issues they might have.”

However, she added, a vote not to reinstate the school resource officer position is not a vote against the Northfield Police Department’s professionalism or ability to protect the community.

“There will be some people disappointed with my vote,” O’Neil said. “It should not ever be read as a lack of confidence or goodwill on anybody’s part.”

One of the key focuses of the debate over the school resource officer was the presence of a police officer in school and what that could mean to students. At Thursday’s meeting, Pioneer Librarian Rachel Dowd cited a 2021 investigation from the journalism nonprofit The Center for Public Integrity, which found school policing disproportionately affects marginalized student groups.

School Committee members, echoing part of their discussion from the previous meeting, said having a different form of partnership with the Northfield Police Department might be more effective at keeping a comfortable and safe school environment while still incorporating the community-building aspects of a school resource officer.

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“Whether you are dressed in uniform or whether you are in just a polo and khakis, you’re a police officer, everyone knows you’re a police officer, and I think sometimes within schools, those lines can blur,” said School Committee member and former teacher Melissa Gerry. “I guess what I’m looking for is some type of formal partnership, in which we would kind of have that one police officer that is our liaison to the school that we can depend on, but that doesn’t mean I feel like we need a full-time position.”

Committee member Stephen Martin agreed with Gerry, adding that the school district has had police officers attend school lunches or participate in elementary school activities in the past, and an alternative partnership could still be effective.

“A liaison for sure, but also someone who appreciates being part of the school community and doing that without the need for [a memorandum of understanding],” Martin said. “It’s a good thing for the police and community to have.”

Selectboard reaction

With meetings scheduled simultaneously, members of the Northfield Selectboard did not attend the School Committee’s discussion on Tuesday, but shared their disappointment with the decision at Town Hall.

Police Chief Jon Hall, who has been working on bringing the school resource officer back into the district for the last year following the resignation of Billy Kimball, said he was disappointed to see much of those efforts be in vain.

“I do believe the school makes its own choice. I stuck by that. … I’m glad we have a decision. Up until this point, it’s been kicking the can down the road because nobody wants to say no in case something bad happens in the school,” Hall said. “I’m disappointed it took a year and a half to get to this point.”

Selectboard members also expressed frustration that the School Committee meeting was scheduled at the same time as their own meeting.

“I’m disappointed because [the SRO] literally is a resource,” commented Selectboard member Barbara “Bee” Jacque. “It could be one more resource that connects what’s going on at home with what’s going on at school.”

Hall, speaking as a parent, added that people tend to send their students to schools based on whether there is a school resource officer, a statement that Selectboard member Bernard “Bernie” Boudreau agreed with.

“If my son was going to be going to Pioneer, he wouldn’t be going right now,” Boudreau said. “I would not send my son to a school without a school resource officer.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081. Reporter Mary Byrne contibuted to this story.

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