MONTPELIER — Teachers have returned and most students will soon follow, but when the Montpelier Roxbury Public School system reopens for in-person instruction next month, the school resource officer will be on the outside looking in.
School Board Chairman Jim Murphy acknowledged as much last week after hearing two more residents — one by virtual proxy — call for the elimination of a position that has repeatedly come under fire during the past two months.
It did again last week when Julia Chafets read a statement from a like-minded Montpelier mom who — in the interest of “… dismantling systemic racism” — urged the board to move on from a position she argued “… subjects students of color to trauma.” Chafets’ husband, Will Roberts, promptly echoed that sentiment — joining a small, but vocal chorus that has added seven new voices since the first eight spoke at the board’s July 1 meeting.
That’s when Chafets weighed in calling for the elimination of the SRO position currently held by Officer Diane Mathews. The board heard from three more residents on July 15, another two on Aug. 5 and two more at its meeting last Wednesday.
Until last week, Murphy welcomed those comments, promising the board would take them under advisement and revisit them when budget deliberations begin next month. That much hasn’t changed.
However, in what he described as “a departure from past years,” Murphy added a new wrinkle to what has been a running conversation.
“The SRO will not be physically located … in a district building for the start of the school year,” Murphy said, even as he sought verification for Superintendent Libby Bonesteel.
Bonesteel nodded and flashed a quick thumbs-up as Murphy acknowledged the summer-long campaign mounted by Chafets and others.
“I know it doesn’t address all of your concerns, but it certainly removes a permanent SRO presence (from the schools),” he said, reiterating his previously state position that the matter will be discussed in greater detail when the board opens it’s budget discussions next month.
“That is by no means the end of the conversation on this,” he said.
Though the disclosure came without explanation, it seemed to satisfy Chafets. She smiled and said she’d save a statement from a second resident who was unable to attend the meeting for another night.
Initial attempts to reach Bonesteel for clarification were unsuccessful and Police Chief Brian Peete seemed surprised when asked about the development Monday.
On Tuesday, Bonesteel indicated the change of plans with respect to the resource officer’s position had nothing to do with public pushback and everything to do with COVID-19.
Bonesteel blamed a space shortage tied to the need to create multiple “isolation rooms” in the district’s four schools for students or staff members who display signs of the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. In a brief email, she indicated, there was no room for Mathews at Montpelier High School or Main Street Middle School.
Bonesteel, who is scheduled to meet with Peete today, said that message was shared with Matthews.
Some of it was lost in the translation.
Peete said Monday he was aware a shortage of space associated with adhering to state guidelines might limit Mathews’ presence at the high school. However, he was hopeful she would be a “solid presence” at the middle school.
Peete, who took over as police chief in July, has gently pushed back against those who have called for eliminating a position he views as “vital.”
“It’s an integral part of what we want to do for our strategic plan and how we want to dialogue and work with young people and provide safety and security that is another form of protection for our children in our community,” he said.
City Manager Bill Fraser said he appreciated concerns raised by Chafets and others who have publicly demanded the elimination of a school-based police officer they contend makes students of color feel less safe. However, like Peete, he defended a position that is focused on prevention and has been a resource for the school district for many years.
Fraser said there had been recent discussions about whether Mathews should wear a uniform to school, or drive a marked cruiser, but not about whether she would be steady presence in the schools.
It isn’t clear how the district plans to use Mathews in the coming months, only that she won’t be housed in any of its buildings for the foreseeable future.
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