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BENNINGTON — Leaders from Bennington and across the state gathered today to seek solutions to violence and harm within the community.

The first-ever Bennington Leadership Summit — with over 25 agencies, departments and organizations represented — was held at Bennington College’s Center for the Advancement of Public Action.

Gov. Phil Scott, who offered opening remarks and sat in on over two hours of the forum, said state leaders learned the importance of interagency collaboration during the pandemic. He also referred to Project VISION, the coalition of over 400 Rutland community partners that was founded in 2013, as an inspiration for today’s meeting. With Project VISION, many of the partners in the community gather regularly in a room to focus on the shared mission of tackling drugs, mental health, violence and other issues affecting that community.

“We do a lot of remote meetings now, as a result of the pandemic. And that’s effective, but it takes away a bit of the human element,” Scott told the Banner about the value of the summit being held in-person. “The conversations we’re having wouldn’t happen on Zoom. It’s been an effective tool, and we’ll continue to use it, but there’s nothing like getting everyone together to really flush out some ideas.”

During his address to the summit, Scott said that community leaders have a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to address these complex issues, and that continued progress and transformation is “within our reach.” He cautioned everyone in attendance that new ideas often get introduced, but the greatest difficulty is in seeing it through.

“Every two years, new people are elected. Everyone’s excited about what they bring to the table,” Scott said. “But the hard work is really finishing what you start. So we have to focus on the fundamentals, and this is a great start.”

The governor touched on a theme that echoed throughout much of the morning, which was that “one size rarely fits all.” Scott made it in reference to Vermont’s many communities that don’t all share the same strengths and challenges.

“This session, I’ve asked the Legislature to pay much more attention to the individual needs of communities, so we can close the gap between regions and lift up all of our towns and villages, not just the ones that have historically done better,” he said.

The forum was lead by James Baker, formerly a Rutland police chief — who launched Project VISION in that town — and state police commandant and interim commissioner of the Vermont Department of Corrections. Baker opened by displaying a “heat map” that shows the areas within Bennington with high concentrations of crime.

“Unfortunately, a lot of communities put that pressure on the police department,” Baker said of the higher-crime areas. “And that’s part of what we’re trying to do here today, is to spread that responsibility across the board for a behavior that happens at a given location.”

To Baker’s point, Bennington Police Lt. Camillo Grande and Bill Camarda, interim executive director at Bennington Rescue Squad, both spoke to the toll that the increased volume of emergency calls is taking on first responders.

“The last couple of years for law enforcement has come with many challenges,” Grande said. “It’s extremely challenging for the men and women in the Police Department. Critical staffing levels, officers required to work many overtime shifts … (it) puts more stress on our personnel.”

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Grande said calls to the BPD are on the rise, with over 13,000 in 2022.

“The things that we see, like a lot of people in this room see, are things that no human being is supposed to see on a daily basis,” Camarda later said, while thanking support systems like United Counseling Service for its help in such matters.

The daylong forum featured sessions, including a panel discussion of “challenges on the ground” that included Grande; Lorna Mattern, executive director of UCS; Kyle Hoover, Bennington district director of Department for Children and Families; Megan Herrington, district director for Department of Health; and Todd Salvesvold, Vermont Blueprint for Health manager.

In their discussion, almost every panelist commented on the growing mental health crisis.

“What I’m seeing is a significant increase in problems and acuity that are being presented to our children’s services folks,” said Mattern.

“Bennington PD handles more mental health calls than any other law enforcement agency in Bennington County combined,” Grande noted.

Also discussed at length was the concern over rising drug abuse and addiction, and related problems.

“We’re seeing substance abuse, but also a level of violence or level of threat tied to those cases, that’s unlike anything I’ve seen in my career,” said Hoover, who has been with Department for Children and Families for 18 years.

The need for better drug abuse care was touched on by Salvesvold.

The earlier part of the forum was a chance to present all of the problems facing Bennington County, and held a negative tone for the first hour and a half, but that was broken up with representatives being able to offer some of their organizations’ recent success stories in a “rapid round table” session.

After lunch, the meeting was split up into smaller discussion groups to identify action items and report back to the main meeting.