BURLINGTON, Vt. – The City of Burlington’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee has recommended that school resource officers (SROs) be unarmed and in plain clothes when students return this fall.
The recommendation was sent to the school board on Thursday amid growing calls for SROs to be removed from schools entirely. The committee also suggested that a task force be formed to examine the role of SROs and develop recommendations to “further Burlington School District’s policy goals in implementing all elements of restorative practice.”
After a lengthy debate about what recommendations should be forwarded to Mayor Miro Weinberger and city council ahead of next week’s budget vote, the board narrowly voted against recommending that the district’s two existing SRO positions be funded only if officers are unarmed and not in uniform.
Instead, they approved an option that calls on the Superintendent create an SRO task force and requests that the Burlington Police Department collaborate with district staff and the school board to make adjustments to SRO guidelines for the 2020-2021 school year.
School board members who voted against recommending that SROs be unarmed said they need more time to discuss these ideas with the community, or were concerned the board doesn’t have the authority to do it.
“This is really about building and creating a plan that is going to serve our students, and you can’t just do that over the course of a week, that is completely unfair,” said school board member Jean Waltz. “I don’t want us to be vague in our intent, but we need to be flexible so we can develop a more restorative process in the future.”
The discussion came after dozens weighed in during the school board’s public forum, echoing previous calls for police reform in schools and the greater community. Many community members have voiced concern that having armed officers in schools could be traumatic for students of color.
“Over the last couple of weeks, we have heard the majority of community members say that they want SROs removed and a lot of them are pressing us to at least have them unarmed, so I think we should listen,” said school board member Aden Haji.
At the outset of Thursday’s meeting, Burlington’s Interim Police Chief Jon Murad gave a presentation that showed arrests made by SROs have been on the decline since 2015, when current SRO guidelines went into effect.
“A great critique of the SRO program nationally is that it contributes to a school to prison pipeline, and I believe strongly that the program here has interrupted that pipeline,” Murad said. “I think this program has been influential and it’s something we should not be throwing away because in other places it doesn’t achieve these same results.”
In a community survey conducted by the school board, a majority of respondents indicated they’re not in favor of SROs being stationed in Burlington schools.
Mayor Miro Weinberger has asked the district to review SRO policy before the upcoming school year.
Michael Hemond is one of two SROs within the Burlington School District, and said that while the large majority of his work doesn’t involve policing, he understands the concern of having armed officers in schools.
“Arrests are hard, and there is a larger discussion to be had about what cops in schools look like,” Hemond said. “There are districts that use SROs for truancy in ways that marginalize kids and criminalize very minor conduct, but that’s something Sparks worked very hard with in collaboration with the BPD and district in 2015 to make sure we don’t do in Burlington.”
Henri Sparks, the school district’s director of equity, said he took the lead in writing a letter supporting the SRO program. However, he acknowledged that there needs to be change.
“As we in Burlington move forward, we have to ask ourselves what are the impacts we have on holding students back, what are the things we do to keep black and brown students down, so we really have to change the way that we move forward.”
The city has until July 1 to pass the 2021 budget.