During public discussions leading up to the vote on a bond for the new school, some voters expressed concern that the school would be located away from police protection. Since then, the board has explored security issues with an eye toward existing facilities as well as the middle/high school now under construction in Whitingham. Although Whitingham has contracted police coverage, the hours are limited and random. State police would respond to calls at the school, but response times could be affected by other emergencies in the area, and by the distance that a trooper might have to travel.
At a meeting earlier this year, Clark noted, he and a representative from the Vermont State Police conducted a walk-through of the school with board members. “At the time, there were some concerns about moving out of Wilmington, which has its own police force, and given the isolation of the (new) school,” he said, “and what could we do to help?”
One way the sheriff’s department can help, Clark said, is to provide a school resource officer, or SRO, who would be a certified police officer working full time at the school. The SRO would be a contracted position paid for by the school. “We don’t receive any funding from the county for deputies,” he explained, “so I have to raise funds through contracts – someone needs to pay for it.”
But Clark said there are federal grants to fund an SRO program, and the school’s rural isolation might make it a good candidate for a grant. Such a grant typically pays the cost of an SRO for three years of a four-year agreement. “In rough numbers, the cost is about $4,000 per month,” Clark said. “That pays for the officer’s salary and benefits, a cruiser, uniforms, and training.” But the school would only pay for services during the school year – September through June. “During the summer, that deputy would be back in Newfane working for me.”
Clark said federal grant opportunities would be published early next year, but Windham Southwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Richard McClements said the school had already been in contact with Vermont officials regarding a state pilot program.
Clark said an SRO would serve as much more than a law enforcement officer at the school. “An SRO is not a security guard,” he said. “If you want a security guard, hire one from a private company – it’ll be cheaper.”
He also advised board members not to do such a thing. Although security would be part of an SRO’s assignment, the officer would also be a resource for students, parents, and the school. “An SRO can respond to crime and will work with the school to devise safety plans,” Clark said. “But the focus is to look at how we can make the environment better for students to be able to learn. An SRO is a great resource for anti-bullying and harassment. An SRO can help teach in classrooms. For driver’s ed, who better to talk to students about the ramifications of DUI, texting, or weather conditions?”
Some of the work could take the SRO out of the school, for truancy issues or to check on students who may be experiencing problems at home.
The extent of an SRO’s duties and job description would be determined by the board, school administration, and Clark, and written into the contract. “We want input from the board and administration,” he said. “In fact, you must, as board members and administrators, be fully engaged for it to work.”
Clark said the officer would still be his employee, would wear a uniform, and would carry a gun, but he indicated that, in cooperation with the state’s attorney’s office, there can be flexibility on enforcement. Some small infractions, particularly in which the school’s discipline policy is harsher than penalties under the law, could be handled by the school administration rather than the justice system. “We don’t want kids to go through the criminal justice system,” Clark said. “It’s expensive, and you don’t get the outcomes you want. We could even help you develop a restorative justice program.”
Clark said the aim is to create an atmosphere in which the officer is seen as an ally, rather than an adversary.
“The SRO should be someone who students, parents, and teachers can turn to,” he said. “It’s a real benefit to the community when they see a police officer as someone they can turn to.”
Board member Phil Taylor asked if an SRO could take on duties that are outside of the job description. “At a small school, the staff wears a lot of hats,” he noted. “Could an SRO do things like teaching or coaching?”
“The SRO probably wouldn’t be doing any full time teaching,” Clark said, “but as a substitute? Sure, if they meet your educational requirements. If Keith (Lyman, Twin Valley Middle School principal) says ‘The social studies teacher was in an accident, can you fill in?’ that would be fine.” Clark said an SRO could also serve as a coach.
As the discussion wound to a close, board members asked how much lead time Clark would need, should the board decide to contract for an SRO. “As much as possible,” he said. “This isn’t a job for any deputy. We want someone who has an interest in being an SRO, wants to work in education, is proactive, self-reliant can deal with problems with minimal supervision, and has an understanding of juvenile law. It has to be the right person, the right fit.”