High school reduces days on campus

Brattleboro Union High School.

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BRATTLEBORO -- A task force will be taking over the study of the school resource program at Brattleboro Union High School that activists want to permanently end. 

During the Windham Southeast School District Board meeting held remotely Tuesday, Superintendent Andy Skarzynski suggested following a district policy that he said "lays the responsibility of abolishing positions" on the board and creating a task force.

Gillian Lucero-Love, a coordinator with Youth 4 Change, noted that the project came about after the local youth activist group protested the program at previous meetings. She said the board called for discussions to be hosted by the school's Leadership Council, which includes parents, teacher and students, but the superintendent and principal made multiple decisions without including council members. 

"I want to put it on here that we want to address that that's not really acceptable," she said, adding that members of the BIPOC community need to have a voice in the matter because it affects them but it seems like the plan for the task force distributes power and decision making. 

Board Chairman David Schoales said he spoke with Skarzynski, several school officials and some board members over the weekend about the prospect. The board unanimously approved the establishment of a task force, which is expected to come up with "a transparent approach that will integrate the community into the process of determining the way forward; identify students, particularly those who are under-engaged at this point, to join the process; examine our current model and research information nationally to identify the positives and negatives of SRO programs; with facilitation and support as needed, develop innovative models for our district that incorporate the positives and eliminate the negatives identified in their research; [and] bring a recommendation(s) to the board," according to a document shared at the meeting

There is "broad consensus" that people serving on the board should be compensated, Schoales said. An attorney for the district will be asked how to proceed with such payments without violating any laws or contracts.

The hope is to have the task force begin in August then produce a report in December in time for budget talks. The SRO program is suspended for next school year while the study is underway. 

Recommended members of the task force include the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union diversity coordinator, the BUHS restorative justice coordinator, an administrator with demonstrated experience in restorative justice, someone from the Brattleboro Community Justice Center, law enforcement representatives, the social studies department chairperson, a school social worker, a school counselor and board members. Board members Tim Maciel, Anne Beekman and Thomas Nolan have agreed to be on the task force. 

"I appreciate the approach to this," board member Michelle Green said. "I think this is a great way to just have as much information as possible so we can be as accountable as we can moving forward and make the best decision for our school district."

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Mike Szostak, restorative justice coordinator at BUHS, suggested including someone from the school's security staff. Keith Lyman, principal at Brattleboro Area Middle School, recommended having a teacher from his school. 

Windham County Sheriff's Office ran the program for 16 years. The program is meant to “ensure access to education and safety to all students, staff, and faculty at the school, which I believe we have done,” Sheriff Mark Anderson said in a statement in March.

"This is not about the individual," said a graduate of BUHS who goes by "Z" and is part of Youth 4 Change. "This is about the system that this officer upholds. Police were designed originally to catch slaves and still to this day, they marginalize and oppress people of color." 

Z questioned why someone tasked with helping people with food security, housing issues and family support would be armed with a gun, taser, pepper spray and baton. 

Shea Witzberger described how in listening to people's experiences as one of the two facilitators hired by the town of Brattleboro to write a community safety review report last year, she found many youth of color report feeling harm from policing including through SRO programming. 

"When I was reading your proposal, I was grateful to see what you were all working on and that the power would be distributed more throughout the community than just the two administrators," she said. 

Witzberger asked for clarity on what "under-engaged" means, which Schoales said had to do with attendance. She encouraged the board to add "students who demographically are most impacted by policing" to the task force and keep the process flexible. 

Other school boards have gone through a similar process and can provide insight, Robin Morgan of Brattleboro said. 

"There's a lot of strong feelings on this -- I see you, I hear you," board member Jaci Reynolds said. "We have responded in the best way we can, quickly, and will continue to evolve our process." 

Lyndall Boal of the Windham County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said her group supports the process and wants to be involved.


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