School Committee backs talks on safety measures with Greenfield police

  • Greenfield High School. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Greenfield Middle School. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • DEBARGE

Staff Writer
Published: 11/23/2021 4:54:42 PM
Modified: 11/23/2021 4:54:27 PM

GREENFIELD — The School Committee voted Monday evening in favor of directing Superintendent Christine DeBarge to work with Police Chief Robert Haigh Jr. “on safety and support options” that police could potentially offer the schools.

Monday’s meeting followed an emotional School Committee meeting that took place earlier this month, during which students, parents and teachers spoke to their concern for behavioral issues causing near daily disruptions at the middle and high schools. Among the concerns raised was the frequency of police response to schools for a variety of issues, including fights and verbal altercations.

“What we thought was important is that — in this very quick crisis time — we make a really good working relationship with our Police Department, because they are being called to our schools and they are coming in,” said School Committee member Katie Caron, relaying the discussion members had during a Health, Safety and Facilities Subcommittee meeting last week that prompted Monday’s discussion and vote. “What we came to as a vote as a group was to empower our superintendent to reach out and make those connections and maybe come up with some plans on what would best serve our students. It does not mean … we are empowering the superintendent to hire an SRO (school resource officer).”

Caron said the idea is for the district to begin “exploring all the options.”

“It’s really important to us that this is a multi-tiered level of support for our school systems, and that we are not further traumatizing students,” she explained.

The meeting on Monday evening generated more than a dozen comments from the public, most of whom spoke against any potential of reinstating an SRO.

“Rather than solving or addressing fundamental problems, we’re saying, ‘There are a lot of bad things happening, let’s bring in someone who can put it down through force,’” said resident Doug Selwyn. “I think we need to really focus on getting the resources we need to our students, to our staff, so we have stable staff who make livable salaries and have reasonable conditions.”

Ann Childs, a Greenfield parent, called hiring an SRO a “Band-Aid” solution.

“An SRO program alone won’t be a solution if we use it as a Band-Aid for problems caused by having an understaffed school, where kids already don’t have the support they need,” she said.

Resident Trey Henry said her daughter, as a person of color, “absolutely would not feel safe with a police officer in the building.”

“You can’t learn if you don’t feel safe,” Henry said.

At least one resident, James Henry, spoke in support of reinstating an officer, arguing from the perspective of a parent whose son benefited from the presence of a school resource officer.

“My experience is that it really depends on how the position is implemented and who the person is,” he said. “Some police officers can truly be a resource for students.”

Responding to School Committee member Jean Wall, who asked what the Greenfield School Department’s response has been thus far, Superintendent Christine DeBarge said the social work staff has increased, and the district is also working on purchasing sensory materials to help students who are feeling “dis-regulated, out of sorts or emotionally overloaded.”

The district is also working on a process for getting volunteers in the school.

“Even if we have volunteers who are able to support one piece of the district’s function, then that allows some of our other, trained instructional assistants or teachers ... to support other students,” DeBarge explained.

DeBarge said she’s also having conversations with organizations to offer professional development focused on trauma-informed care, in particular for Greenfield Middle School staff.

“Those are all pieces that have happened since the last School Committee meeting,” she said. “This is an exceptionally complicated issue across the board, which is why we are continuing to do the curriculum work that we’re doing because we realize how important it is to build a strong instructional program to keep all of our students moving forward, being successful and staying engaged.”

In terms of building a relationship with the Greenfield Police Department, DeBarge said she feels that she shares the goal with Haigh of supporting all the students.

“I will say he and I both have the same understanding of all of the factors impacting our students and staff,” she said. “I want to debrief the situations and allow both he and I to hear from people involved; we can hear from the Police Department’s perspective, and once we have that shared, comprehensive understanding of the situations, we’ll be able to start some additional conversations, pull in some stakeholders, get feedback and talk about the continuum of resources we might be able to have in place.”

The School Committee ultimately voted to have DeBarge continue her discussions and relationship building with the Police Department, and to explore solutions with an emphasis on equity. Chair Amy Proietti was unable to attend.

“All of the options that are discussed will come back to us for another conversation,” Caron said. “Just because we vote this in does not mean we are getting an SRO. It does not mean we’re not getting one, but it doesn’t mean we are. We heard from some educators, but I would be flooded with emails from educators. … I want to hear more. This gives us more time to hear more.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne


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