BENNINGTON — Police have been called to Bennington Elementary School on numerous occasions to deal with “juveniles that are out of control” at a rate higher than seen in other local schools and districts.
But, education officials note, Benn El is not alone in seeking increased police assistance to handle student safety issues.
Because of the nationwide COVID shutdowns that closed schools over the past two years, school staff are navigating behavioral problems that weren’t present prior to the pandemic or issues that were exacerbated from isolation. There are “some social skills that are lacking,” said Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette.
These behavioral problems can create situations where school staff worry about student or school safety and believe calling the police is the best option, but Doucette said other social service organizations — including United Counseling Service — will also call upon the Police Department for assistance in these cases.
While the police could have direct contact with a student, it’s also possible that officers will attend the incident while on standby, without any direct involvement. He also noted that incidents become police matters when staff or other students are not safe, but he added, “just because the police respond to the school doesn’t mean that the school is not safe.”
“When there’s concerns about safety, I welcome calls to the department, even if the officers just go and respond and standby while the situation is resolved,” said Doucette.
If police do have direct contact with the student, the mental health training they’ve focused on in the last year and a half comes in handy, he said. “It involves ... the whole mental first aid piece,” said Doucette.
The state Agency of Education said in a statement that the agency is aware that the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union is facing a “significant level of student mental health challenges.” But regarding using law enforcement in the schools, the agency stressed the use of “non-disciplinary approaches such as positive behavior supports.” The agency acknowledged that police involvement can be necessary to protect the safety of a student.
SVSU Superintendent James Culkeen agreed that the struggles at Benn El and other schools are tied to the COVID pandemic.
“Our entire community has been significantly impacted by the pandemic, and many of our families face barriers to healthy social-emotional development on a daily basis,” he said.
A portion of the Bennington community struggles with food insecurity, unstable housing, substance abuse and other limitations that can affect a child’s ability to be successful in an educational environment.
“When children have unmet needs, they communicate through any means available, including behavior,” said Culkeen.
Bennington Elementary School isn’t alone, and Doucette said his officers respond to other schools in the district, as well, including the other elementary schools.
“Since leaving the structured school system because of COVID, children had to face a lot of uncertainty in their day-to-day lives without the need to be in a classroom and complete assignments every day,” the chief said.
Now that they’re back in school, “they need to learn the rules all over again.”