“School safety coaches” should replace resource officer in some situations, Concord task force says 

  • Concord High School. The bill, House Bill 607, would create an opt-in, local version of the “education freedom account” program passed this summer. Dana Wormald

Monitor staff
Published: 2/19/2022 6:17:57 PM

A community group tasked with reviewing the Concord School District’s discipline system has recommended shrinking the school resource officer’s role and bringing in “school safety coaches” to handle non-criminal behavior issues.

At a special meeting of the Concord School Board on Feb. 9, Brenda Hastings, the school board representative on the school discipline task force, presented a report containing recommendations on ways to improve the district’s discipline system.

The task force, which is made up of about 10 people including school employees, parents and community members, was assembled in spring 2021 to review the discipline system and make recommendations on how to improve it, following lengthy debate over the necessity and effectiveness of having a school resource officer position. Over the past several months, Hastings said, the group has reviewed data, looked at methods used at the high school and interviewed groups of students and staff.

“(We) compiled some information that was eye-opening and hard but important for us to be able to look at,” Hastings said. “Then we started looking at, with the multiple programs we have available and the feelings of the students and the staff, what could we recommend to the board as we go forward with looking at discipline that would be helpful to you?”

Among the recommendations, the task force proposed re-framing the school resource officer position to be focused solely on crime risk and also hiring “school safety coaches” to focus on building relationships and de-escalating conflicts, using “healing-centered” approaches. Whereas the school resource officer position is currently a three-pronged position focused on law enforcement, counseling and educating, task force members say non-criminal issues don’t need to be addressed by a police officer.

“Right now, if a student is not present in class for example, the SRO is on surveillance, trying to track the kid down and then the police officer is responding to that,” said task force member Elizabeth Leahy. “We, as a group, thought it is non-criminal, it’s not a violation of any law, kids shouldn’t be interacting with police on examples like that. That could be an example of where a safety coach figures out where they are and then you can have a conversation. What’s going on? You can start that relationship.”

The safety coach model presented by the task force is inspired by one used at a high school in Minnesota that specializes in students with behavior issues. While the school is different from Concord High School – it experienced hundreds of arrests a year before implementing a safety coach model – Concord task force members say its model is worth exploring. They recommend adding four safety coaches to Concord High School and three to Rundlett Middle School, which can be either outside hires or existing staff members who undergo additional training.

“The idea is really for relationships with the young people,” said task force member Barry Lawrence. “The idea is that there are always those people in school – there’s usually a handful – that kids are just drawn to. The whole idea is to have these people that they reach out to, not necessarily that they are just there to intervene in every situation, but these are the people they’ll reach out to.”

Almost every student the task force members interviewed was dealing with mental health challenges, according to Hastings. Many were either unaware of the resources currently available to them at school or felt that the existing resources – advisory period, and school counselors – did not fit their needs.

“There’s clearly, in my opinion, a need here, because the kids are calling it out,” said school board member Jim Richards. “It’s very important that we start thinking about what’s available in our schools and how truly it is available in our communities.”

Another recommendation made by the committee is to prioritize hiring school personnel that reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the student body. In interviews with students over the last several months, task force members say they heard many students of color, including new American students, don’t feel included and supported. Some reported microaggressions, having racial slurs used against them and being told to “go back to your country.”

“They don’t see someone who looks like them,” Hastings said. “They don’t have that connection within the school building that’s comfortable, quickly, for them. They may develop that over time, I know there are several staff members at the high school who have done a great job developing those relationships with students, but that takes time. Sometimes students just connect with someone who has a shared history.”

The district has been working on outreach this year in an effort to attract more racially diverse staff, according to Hastings and Murphy.

Other recommendations made by the committee focused on re-examining the district’s use of traditional discipline methods – in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions and detentions – and collecting data on how and when those practices are used.

The task force recommendations will be shared with the schools, and administrators will work to make sure students are informed of the resources available to them to deal with mental health and discrimination concerns. Murphy said she is also considering creating a role of diversity, equity and inclusion official for the district, to be funded through federal ESSER funds.

“I think it plays into the work around discpline so that we can examine the data, and why do we have deltas between kids of color and white kids,” Murphy said. “I think that’s part of the work.”

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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