State House

The Vermont Statehouse is seen in the fall.

MONTPELIER — A pair of bills in the state senate have very different takes on whether or not school resource officers have a place in public education.

Senate Bill 63, proposed earlier this month, would bar schools from contracting with law enforcement to staff SROs, but it was soon met with an opposing bill proposing precisely the opposite: Senate Bill 76 proposes grant funding for SROs, and includes four years of annual grants to encourage schools to use them.

Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, one of S. 76’s co-sponsors, said it was the creation of S. 63 that inspired the creation of S. 76. He believes that SROs provide significant service to schools and the students in them, as evidenced by an incident in 2018 when a student allegedly attempted to carry out acts of extreme violence at Fair Haven Union High School.

In that particular case, Brock said, it was the student’s friend who reported his intentions to an SRO in New York. That SRO then reported it to the SRO in Vermont, who in turn alerted local law enforcement.

“We have not had a school shooting incident, but we’ve come close,” Brock said. “This was real. This wasn’t theoretical ... A young man took many measurable steps to kill as many students as he could.”

The use of school resource officers has been a topic of discussion locally as candidates vie for board seats in the Maple Run Unified School District. Members of the public spoke out against the presence of SROs in MRUSD schools in September after an incident involving a student with a disability being arrested by an SRO became public. This led to the board creating a committee to examine the use of SROs in district schools.

Some MRUSD candidates have called for SRO funding to be used elsewhere, such as on counselors and counseling resources for students, mental health and restorative justice resources and resources for students who have experienced trauma at any point in their lives.

Senate Bill 63 was introduced on Feb. 4, and would prohibit schools from contracting for the services of school resource officers. The bill states that the presence of SROs leads to an increase in arrests, convictions for low- and high-level offenses, and directly contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline.

The bill also states that the presence of SROs disproportionately affects students of color and students with special needs. According to U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection data from 2015-2016, Black students had an arrest rate 5.4 times higher than that of white students, and Black students with disabilities in Vermont face the highest overall arrest rate of 134 per 10,000 students.

Numerous attempts to reach bill co-sponsors Sens. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, and Christopher Pearson, P/D-Chittenden, were unsuccessful.

While Brock said he didn’t question the statistics, he said they show correlation rather than causation and there needed to be more in-depth analysis of negative incidences between SROs and students before any kind of blanket ban should be considered.

Brock said the majority of the comments and experiences around SROs that he has seen and heard have been positive.

“Not every resource officer is perfect,” Brock said.

The opposing bill, S. 76, cites slow response times for law enforcement in rural areas and the cultivation of positive relationships between students and law enforcement, in addition to keeping students safe from on-site violence.

“Ten Essential Actions to Improve School Safety,” a study issued by the COPS Office’s School Safety Working Group to the US Attorney General, suggests that SROs may have a “profound impact” on a school’s preventative measures against violence and maladaptive behaviors.

The bill would also make school districts and supervisory unions eligible for an annual SRO grant for $50,000 beginning this year and for the next three years, funded by the Agency of Education. The funding is designed to encourage those who have not previously retained an SRO to do so.

If passed, the bill would give discretion to trained SROs and law enforcement — not the Agency of Education or the state Board of Education — on all aspects of restraint and seclusion on school property pursuant to 20 V.S.A. 2358.

“I grew up in Franklin County, and was actually in school when the SROs were originally put in,” Sen. Corey Parent, R-Franklin, said in an interview on Tuesday. “In talking with teachers, they’ve seen students respond positively to SROs ... Let the parents and the voters decide.”

Parent said he appreciates that SROs wear multiple hats and provide multiple services, and is looking forward to talking about reforms and ways to potentially make their presence and impact more positive.

Brock said he thought the implementation of S. 63 and the banning of all resource officers could possibly lead to more problems and disorder in schools, and may result in potentially violent incidents that could have otherwise been prevented with SROs on-scene.

“What we do in Vermont more than anywhere else is let communities run local schools,” Brock said. “The training (for SROs) could very well be improved ... but that’s part of continuing education.”

Both bills have been referred to the Education Committee.

“It seems like a hot button issue, but I don’t think (bill 76) or bill 63 are going to go anywhere this year,” Parent said.

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