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Williamstown DIRE Committee Hears Concerns About Police at Schools
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
03:42AM / Friday, October 02, 2020
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee this week heard from several residents who echoed the concerns raised by committee members about the presence of police officers in the town's public schools.
 
"I wanted to underscore one of the points Meg [Bossong] made about the perception of safety versus how policing can make us feel not only unsafe but how we are acclimating our children to a world where not even their schools are free of policing," Peggy Kern said. "Not even their buses are free of surveillance. I think that's a really important thing to think about.
 
"The moment my daughter steps on a bus, there is a camera present. And when she walks into school, there is an armed agent of the state, which is what police officers are, posted outside of her school. When I think about policing … I start from the reality of what police officers are, which are armed law enforcement agents. So when I think about what we're using them for, I always ask myself, do we need an armed agent of the state for this.
 
"It's hard for me to imagine scenarios where we need armed agents of the state in our schools."
 
Kern was quick to note the horrors of school shootings but said society is better served by building connected communities and better mental health systems than "having armed officers posted in case that harm occurs."
 
She also pointed to recent allegations of racism and sexual misconduct connected to the Williamstown Police Department and said the local police force has "smashed its social contract with this community."
 
Specifically, she cited an allegation in a recently filed discrimination lawsuit against the town, town manager and police chief that an unnamed officer on the force admitted to State Police that he exposed himself to a local female resident against her wishes.
 
"For me, as a parent, do I feel safe wondering if the officer responding to an incident in my daughter's school will be the one exposed himself to a resident?" Kern said. "It's unacceptable. We're now in a position of having to balance the perception of the safety provided by an officer with the reality of their behavior."
 
Bossong, who was the first to address the DIRE Committee at its weekly Monday evening meeting, was a Williamstown resident until 2017 and still works in the town while raising her family in Pittsfield.
 
She asked the committee to investigate the role of police in schools and asked the town to rethink whether the use of police officers on school campuses is appropriate. In particular, she questioned the use of WPD officers to maintain traffic safety in the Williamstown Elementary School parking lot, a move prompted some years ago by parents' complaints about drivers' behavior during pickup and dropoff periods.
 
"You don't need to have sworn law enforcement officers doing that," Bossong said. "I am one of the people who, several years ago, complained to the schools and the town about the presence of law enforcement at Williamstown Elementary School, where I was dropping off my son, who is Black, and having to go by an armed canine officer every single day on the way into school.
 
"It's not appropriate. It's traumatizing in a historical and generational sense for students of color. And it's not a function that's necessary to be done."
 
Bossong, who was among those who spoke for reducing the Pittsfield police budget earlier this year, also talked about the role of a "school resource officer" in the school.
 
"Another function that school resource officers are often encouraged to serve is in a mentorship function or a guidance function or a youth development function," she said. "If there are people whose day job is as law enforcement officers who want to work in youth development and youth mentorship, there are many, many opportunities for people to work in that function or volunteer in that function.
 
"But the function of sworn law enforcement is not youth development. It's not youth mentorship. It's not possible for law enforcement to serve that function because they are neither trained nor equipped to work in that way."
 
The memorandum of understanding between the Mount Greylock Regional School District and the Lanesborough and Williamstown police departments calls not for a "school resource officer" but a liaison between the local departments and the school district. The MOU spells out qualifications for such a liaison, including that he or she have a, "[d]emonstrated commitment to de-escalation, diversion, and/or restorative justice and an understanding of crime prevention, problem-solving and community policing in a school setting."
 
At a June town community conversation about race sponsored by the school district, middle-high school Principal Jacob Schutz emphasized that the schools have liaisons instead of school resource officers and characterized the liaison's occasional presence in school as "informal" so that if officers are needed to deal with an emergency their presence won't be as jarring.
 
Bossong on Monday dismissed the distinction between liaisons and school resource officers as merely a matter of semantics.
 
"It's still a sworn officer in the school building," she said.
 
And, in fact, a review of the MOU between the Mount Greylock district and the WPD shows little, other than nomenclature, that distinguishes the liaison from this definition posted by the National Association of School Resource Officers: "a career law enforcement officer with sworn authority who is deployed by an employing police department or agency in a community-oriented policing assignment to work in collaboration with one or more schools."
 
At the outset of Monday's conversation about policing in schools, DIRE Committee member Andrew Art suggested that the committee start the discussion by hearing from school administrators and principals in the audience of the virtual meeting to get some background about the role of police at the schools.
 
"I don't think that's quite necessary," Aruna D'Souza said. "For me, the context of the conversation is that this [issue] has been raised by a number of community members as something they would like the DIRE Committee to address.
 
"When this was raised, I think by Jeffrey [Johnson] and others as an important conversation to have, we put it on the agenda, and I informally sent out invitations to people around the community that I thought would be interested in participating in or commenting on or listening to the conversation. [The administrators] weren't invited to the meeting and therefore might not be prepared to be panelists. I basically invited people as: You might be interested in this conversation."
 
Kerri Nicoll said that if the committee wants a formal discussion with school officials, it should formally invite them to the table.
 
"What I had imagined … was to get a sense from community members of what people's concerns and thoughts were on this topic," Nicoll said. "Perhaps our next step would be to contact school officials and have a more formal discussion with them about the history of this and how to move forward. … I think, as Aruna said, if we did not formally ask members of school administrations to be here to speak, we should not expect them to. I think most of them are here to listen to what community members have to say."
 
What they heard, for the most part, were concerns that armed police officers on school grounds are unnecessary and intimidating -- especially for students of color but not only for that group.
 
One resident, Ralph Hamman, stuck up for the practice of having police at WES, especially doing traffic enforcement. He said he had seen officers move cars out of handicapped spaces and "stop drivers from going the wrong way" in the lot.
 
Hamman also volunteered that he is the father of a "minority child," and their family is comfortable with the police presence at the elementary school. He characterized the police officers he has encountered at the school as "very friendly" and "a good role model."
 
D'Souza pushed back on the idea that families of all children would agree with that assessment.
 
"If I am not teaching [my daughter] to understand safety according to what is a data-verified real threat and understanding that her threat level versus someone else's threat level is different, I'm not giving her the right information," D'Souza said. "To tell a young Black child, say, that police are good guys is actually to give them false information given who they are and what the statistics say.
 
"That's why a lot of Black parents teach their kids to act in different ways near the police than a white parent may. I do think it's really important that we understand that those fears and perceptions are not coming from nowhere. They're coming from the actual experience of the world."
 
In other business on Monday, the committee addressed some tweaks to its statement of principles but agreed that the principles themselves are not written in stone and may evolve as the committee continues its work. It also decided to send a resolution to the Select Board that the elected body take those principles under advisement in approaching its own work.
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