ST. ALBANS — Four new candidates are running for the Maple Run Unified School District board this year, and use of school resource officers has become a prominent topic recently in the wake of a year when law enforcement has come under public scrutiny.
“It’s a clear distinction between the candidates,” said Peter DesLauriers, who is running for a St. Albans City seat this year. “(The SRO program) is a program we can work on and make better. I don’t think the people who are against it are wrong. I think their heart is in the right place.”
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 an arrested by an SRO became public. This led to the board creating a committee to examine the use of SROs in district schools.
Katie DesLauriers Messier, a self-proclaimed “pro-police” candidate, is running for the Saint Albans Town seat against Jennifer Williamson, an outspoken opponent of use of SROs.
Messier’s father, DesLauriers, and Reier Erickson are running against incumbent Nilda Gonella-French for the two available St. Albans City seats on the board. Gonella-French currently serves as vice-chair.
Rather than allocating the resources for SROs, Erickson, whose candidacy was endorsed by Rights & Democracy Vermont, said he would rather spend the money 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.
“It’s a new discussion in the country,” Erickson said in an interview recently. “My platform is about the idea that our schools can adapt better to what is a changing world.”
Erickson said he was inspired to cast his hat into the ring after an online exchange with Messier on the subject of SROs.
“There was a group effort to talk and do research into SROs, and in that discussion, I started to get really nasty messages from people in the community, people who are behind SROs,” Erickson said. “I’m used to that. I’m a Black American ... It came down to ‘if you don’t like it, you should leave,’ and I knew St. Albans was better than that.”
Erickson, who himself has two children in city schools, said statewide and national data around community policing and school resource officers shows SROs aren’t beneficial.
“Apart from the very fiscal argument, the reality is they do enormous harm, especially to BIPOC, LGBTQ+, etc,” Erickson said.
But Messier, DesLauriers and MRUSD Superintendent Kevin Dirth have different opinions on the matter.
“There’s significant passion around this issue, and I am extremely strong about the need for school resource officers in our schools,” Dirth said. “From a community policing point of view, I think they’re necessary and beneficial.
“That hasn’t always been true throughout the country, and I understand that...Generally with extremely rare exceptions, we’ve had positive experiences,” he said.
A former mayor, city councilor and multi-discipline teacher for over 42 years, DesLauriers said having the officers close by and ready to help eliminated response time when and if the school needed to call police.
He said their presence in schools introduced students to members of the law enforcement community and created bonds that lasted far beyond their school years.
“I can understand a kid can be scared of a police officer,” DesLauriers said. “Distrust can be learned as well as experienced.”
DesLauriers said the hiring process and selection of SROs needed to be revisited so that the right people with the right temperament and training are hired.
“The stigma of law enforcement — it’s up to the SRO to overcome that,” DesLauriers said. “I understand that that is difficult because of that stigma, but it can be done.”
Messier, too, said she saw local law enforcement as members of the community who had an important role in keeping students safe, and said she personally witnessed positive relationships between students and officers.
“I’ve seen some of these officers who are so gentle and so kind with these kids that it’s really hard to say ‘they should all be out,’” Messier said. “I’ve heard what these people on Facebook are saying about ‘this thing that happened in another state or city,’ but coming from this small town, people know the police officers, they know the restaurant owners. They know each other.”
In an interview on Thursday, Williamson said she was motivated to run for office after hearing about negative interactions that students with special needs have had with SROs. As a naturopathic physician and mother of a child with special needs, she felt compelled to take a stand.
“I don’t want our schools to have a bad reputation ... I want to be at the forefront and make positive changes and improve the quality of the education that our kids are getting,” Williamson said.
Williamson said although the SROs in the district may be community and well-known officers around town, that didn’t mean it was right to have officers carrying weapons and wearing armor in the hallways of a learning institution.
“Making sure that our students have an equitable education, and that we listen to the needs of kids who are in demographics of kids who often feel overlooked,” Williamson said. “Those experiences might be different from the experiences of a majority, and I want to bring their concerns to the table.”
Regardless of whether the district’s School Resource Officer Study Committee says the SROs should stay or go, Williamson, Erickson, DesLauriers and Messier said they would respect the decision.
“I would support their conclusion and do whatever I can to push for progress,” Williamson said.
The candidates agreed on using the budget to serve students both in person and remotely, opening alternate pathways for students to learn, and the importance of resources for social and emotional learning.
“How do we get students back that we are losing?” said Messier, who comes from a family of educators and has herself been involved in various levels of local education for over 20 years. “I’d like to see that on top of the priorities. How do we make sure students have the supports and technology they need?”
Erickson said he also hoped to see additional educational resources and supports offered in school lessons.
“I’m looking forward to teaching actual history, not just what we find in textbooks,” Erickson said. “I’d like to see more teaching about indigenous people before the white people landed in North America, both the Abenaki and communities throughout North America, about the Japanese internment camps, and age-appropriate lessons on slavery.”
Williamson stressed the need for pressure on Vermont’s infrastructure improvements in an effort to make internet and technology more accessible for more students to explore alternate education pathways.
“I hear ‘we need change, we need change,’” Des Lauriers said of the district. “But it can’t be change for the sake of change.”