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Police at Brattleboro Union High School last week after threatening graffiti messages were found in bathrooms. 

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BRATTLEBORO — After a series of troubling incidents at Brattleboro Union High School, administrators came up with immediate actions aimed at improving the school environment, including the addition of staff and consulting with the students about their needs. 

"I think it's no secret that it's been a rough start to the school year, for sure," Superintendent Mark Speno said Tuesday at the Windham Southeast School District Board meeting. "So there's been lots of conflict, lots of situations that have led to anxiety and we're not walking away from that. We own that." 

Another student safety officer will be hired to join the school's security team after an increase in physical aggression was reported by Principal Steve Perrin, two threatening graffiti messages were scrawled in bathrooms, a restroom was vandalized as part of a TikTok challenge and a handgun was seized by police from a car on campus. A dean of school also will be added to staff to help with discipline but also focus on "conflict resolution and restorative practices," Speno said. 

Challenges with returning to fully in-person instruction are being felt district wide but especially at the high school, he said. High school students were on campus for in-person learning about one day a week last week due to pandemic protocols. 

On Wednesday, Speno and Perrin planned to meet with the student council.

"We've got to embrace what's happened, what the first month has been like, but then we have to identify moving forward how we are going to make it better to improve our culture and our school community," Speno said. "Students want to be part of the solution."

Twice-a-week advisory meetings with staff and students will be used to home in on issues related to school safety and identify solutions. Perrin anticipates the meetings will occur at least through October and possibly through Thanksgiving. 

"While the circumstances are terrible and we're really not happy with the way we started the year," he said, "I'm pretty gratified by this process, and I really think it's going to lead to some permanent changes in how we use our advisory system, number one, and how we gather student voice and amplify it." 

Perrin said eight of the 13 incidents reported at the school where a student instigated, planned or engaged in a fight involved freshmen.

"To me, that speaks to that we need to do some work with ninth grade students and figure out how's that transition from a really rocky middle school experience to high school going," he said. 

Some of the conflicts "simmered and boiled over during the summer that are now coming back at school," Perrin said. He added that he was happy to report the "summer conflict appears to be in large part resolved."

Perrin said student safety officers help de-escalate tense situations and are in certain places when students change classes, go to lunch, and arrive and leave school. Restrooms are being surveilled to ensure no more graffiti incidents. 

BUHS suspended its school resource officer program run by the Windham County Sheriff's Office this year after concerns were raised by activists who worried it was having a negative effect and could be especially harmful to students of color. In March, Perrin announced the program would be evaluated. 

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A student safety officer and school resource officer have "compatible pieces," Sheriff Mark Anderson told the Reformer, "but are very much with separate responsibilities and impacts." 

"The school has maintained a safety staff for decades and this is simply increasing that resource in light of current circumstances," he said. "It doesn't translate to the services the school resource officer provides." 

Perrin said a school resource officer is employed by a local law enforcement agency, and at BUHS the officer carried a sidearm.  

"A school safety officer is our employee," he told the Reformer "They are not law enforcement officers and they do not carry weapons. We do train our school safety staff in de-escalation and restraint through Crisis Prevention Institute."

Anderson said he hasn't heard about the evaluation of the school resource officer program but he would be happy to talk about bringing it back. 

In closing the report about recent issues at the high school, Speno said students want to find fun activities to host at the school. 

"A lot of students lamented that we didn't have a homecoming dance because of COVID," Perrin said, looking to hear from students about "creative ways to have fun without violating social distancing requirements." 

School Board Chairman David Schoales and Speno noted issues at BUHS are being experienced nationally in middle and high schools. Board member Tim Maciel commended the plan presented by administrators.

Other business

An update from the Climate Crisis Task Force was postponed due to issues that needed to be added to the agenda including the report on actions being taken at the high school to improve safety. In August, the task force voted to bring a ballot question to the School Board in hopes of the district presenting it to voters at the same time as the budget, but has not yet done so. 

The proposed ballot would ask voters to make the climate crisis “the top priority” by becoming a carbon-neutral district by Jan. 1, 2025; immediately adopting a plant-based food system; devoting one school day each month to a Climate Emergency Day where education is focused solely on mitigating climate change and living with its consequences; immediately having one day each month for staff development on current climate emergency reports with a focus on how to present findings to students on Climate Emergency Days and creating climate action plans; and making climate costs a higher priority than financial costs. A member of the task force who is not on the board is additionally proposing "climate vacations" replace the Thanksgiving and winter holidays, having families forgo shopping and instead share their concerns about climate change with one another. 

The board is looking for community members to join a committee to independently review the district's budget ahead of the annual meeting. Kristina Naylor of Dummerston, former board chairwoman, was the first to volunteer.