Task force

Members of a task force studying the School Resource Officer program, left to right, included Brattleboro Union High School students Z'Aira Pacheco, Kaiya Colby, Habame Scholz-Karabakakis and Imani Namutebi. Colby is now serving as a student representative to the School Board.

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BRATTLEBORO — A task force convened to study the suspended school resource officer program at Brattleboro Union High School is recommending alternative security solutions and calling for a more inclusive environment after students reported feeling that white students had less punitive consequences than their peers of color, and administrators were not adequately responding to incidents.

Students interviewed did not have “a definite yes or no” when asked about keeping the SRO, task force member/student Z’Aira Pacheco said.

“One thing they did agree on was they did not want an armed officer in the school because that made them really uncomfortable,” she said. “They made a prison analogy.”

Mikaela Simms, diversity coordinator for Windham Southeast School District and task force member, said the report follows discussions in what “seems like another lifetime ago.” In February 2021, local activists with Youth 4 Change called for ending the SRO program, and others supported that effort in a petition.

The School Board suspended the program and formed the task force. At the board meeting Tuesday, members of the task force presented their findings.

“This report highlights the people who are most impacted,” Simms said, describing how it is filled with experiences and perspectives gathered via a student-led inquiry of their peers.

With the schools becoming more diverse, Simms said, the district needs to consider “what’s good for the whole community,” not just the majority. Mike Szostak, restorative justice coordinator at BUHS, noted the report takes a qualitative rather than quantitative approach because it was the best way to achieve equity.

“We have what, I think and most agree, is an effective safety staff in the high school,” Szostak said. “And we are certainly suggesting that we continue without an SRO, which we currently do not have today.”

The school hired former SRO, Deputy Sheriff Timmie Vinton, as head of security staff in a non-police officer role after the program was suspended while the task force’s study took place. He is “very well liked,” the report states.

The task force wants to explore the potential for having a liaison officer, like other schools have, who might respond to incidents and come from the Brattleboro Police Department or Windham County Sheriff’s Office with skills related to working with children and de-escalating situations. The task force also suggests putting more emphasis on having an inclusive community atmosphere in the school and classrooms, and more mental health supports.

Habame Scholz-Karabakakis, a BUHS student on the task force, said students did not feel listened to when they reported incidents or issues to administrators and did not feel comfortable asking for help.

Many people who report incidents are “unbelieved. That happens all the time,” said Anna Mullany, task force facilitator.

Pacheco-Wright said bathrooms are being surveilled, making some students feel uncomfortable about using them while others are using them for partying and sexual activity. A school lounge has been closed due to the pandemic.

“COVID itself had a big impact on students,” Pacheco-Wright said. “They feel isolated. Their mental health got worse and their maturity hasn’t gone up since they were in middle school.”

Students of color feel they face more consequences than white students when disciplined in the school, Pachecho-Wright said.

“Knowing nothing is going to change, they don’t feel like reporting these incidents because they know nothing is happening,” she said.

Kaiya Colby, student and task force member, said students reported there being no consequences when racial, transphobic or homophobic slurs were used, making “a very unsafe environment” for those targeted by the words.

Students also want more classroom content that delves into sexual orientation and race, Colby said.

Board member Tim Maciel said the report’s description of the climate at the school is “alarming.”

“It calls for a redoubling of our efforts,” he said, noting how the district has made steady progress in its diversity, equity and inclusion programming but needs to more closely monitor what’s happening in the high school. “Clearly, more needs to be done.”

Addressing the students, Maciel said, “I want to ensure you all have been heard today and your good work will not be ignored. To be continued.”

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Board member Lana Dever told the students she can’t wait to see their ideas implemented and she hopes they’ll be part of the solutions.

Nancy Wiese, director of the Windham Regional Career Center, said she and other administrators dislike patrolling the bathrooms, “but when I have two students in a single-person bathroom and I have a duty of care issue, I need to intervene in that situation. The reason for that is because I need to make sure whatever is happening in that bathroom is consensual and appropriate for school.”

Weise also wanted students to know that when they report bullying, harassment or hazing, it is true staff can’t share details about the response “because it’s a legal issue and by law, we are not allowed to tell you the consequences of another student.”

“I know that is really hard to hear and frustrating,” she said. “It’s frustrating to the teachers as well.”

Weise said she doesn’t want to brush the issues “under the carpet ... We can always do a better job when it comes to community building and community understanding.”

Principal Steve Perrin called debate over the SRO program “divisive ... in our community for a long time.”

“I don’t think it needed to be but it was,” he said. “The desire to create space for candid conversation is one of the reasons we suspended the SRO program for this year.”

Perrin said no administrators from the high school or middle school were asked to be part of the task force. Although, BUHS teacher Henry Zucchini disputed that later, saying the high school’s assistant principal attended the first meeting and he wasn’t sure if he was notified about other meetings.

Security staff and counselors also weren’t invited, Perrin said, adding that including those who he said were left out would have allowed the process to move forward faster with more detail. He described being “really troubled” by a part of the report that quotes a student saying, “I emailed [Administration] about my sexual assault within our school. I never got a reply, and it was never addressed. We’re told to come to the admin when dealing with such important issues, yet when we do, our concerns get ignored.”

“I don’t think any of our administrators would do that,” Perrin said, voicing a desire to get more information about the incident. “We do take harassment seriously.”

Board member Lana Dever said she couldn’t imagine how it would have been good for administrators to be part of the process if the task force wanted honest input. She also pointed out how on one side of the room were people in positions of power who are predominately white and mostly men, and on the other side were female students of color.

Dever described being struck by the two administrators’ impulse to counter the information provided by the students. She called for them to “sit with the stories ... and come from a place of believing.”

“You’ve done courageous work,” Mark Speno, interim superintendent, then told the students. “There’s a lot to unpack in the report. You strike me as young leaders who want to make a change in their school. That’s what we’re looking for.”

Speno said he thinks the school community needs to continue to make improvements “and we are absolutely committed to doing that.”

“For decades, nobody listened,” said Mindy Haskins Rogers, a BUHS alum who wrote a report published by the Commons alleging a retired teacher committed sexual abuse that led to an investigation currently underway. “And there were especially men in power who dismissed and talked down what they were told by students. So I hope you will listen to these kids because they just did incredible work for you and they got their peers to talk and you got earnest responses so you got something to work with.”

Board member Deborah Stanford suggested administrators “take a moment to silence their defensiveness and just listen.”

Weise said she wasn’t being defensive but agreeing with aspects of the report.

“I’m outrageously offended by some board members,” she said, adding that she has “the deepest respect for this group of students” and she accepts that women of color have a different life story than she does as a white learning disabled woman who runs a career center. “I have been marginalized this evening.”

Weise called the allegations against the retired teacher accused of sex abuse “appalling to each and every one of us.”

“Yet every time we speak, we are judged as ineffective and underrated and unacceptable. It would not matter if we could walk on the proverbial water,” she told the board. “What you do to us on a regular basis is humiliating, belittling and disrespectful.”

Weise started to cry when she recounted waiting 45 minutes for the Brattleboro Police Department to come to the campus when a loaded gun was in a car.