Education

Burlington School District to remove police officers from schools

Edmunds Middle School
Edmunds Middle School on Main Street in Burlington. Photo by Bob LoCicero /VTDigger

Nine months after the Burlington City Council first resolved to end the city’s use of in-school police officers, the Burlington School District is scaling back the program. 

At a meeting Tuesday night, school board members approved the elimination of one of two in-school officer positions in the district and directed the remaining officer to be stationed at Burlington Police Department headquarters, rather than on school grounds. 

Beginning in the fall, that officer will only visit schools during scheduled events — such as trainings and active-shooter drills — and without weapons or uniforms, barring an emergency. 

The changes emerged from a 20-page report crafted by a district task force on the role of officers in schools. Led by the district’s director of equity, Henri Sparks, the report included nine other recommendations on student safety — including a new plan for use of restorative justice practices in schools and “rapid response intervention” teams to implement such practices.

“First and foremost, we need to listen to the voice of our students,” Sparks told commissioners on Tuesday. His priority, he said, was “meeting students’ needs where they are.” 

“And I don’t believe that is a police matter,” he said.

Superintendent Tom Flanagan said Tuesday that the recommendations had his full support, calling the task force’s evaluation of the program a “community-driven process.” 

“I believe that our district can act on these recommendations and should act on these recommendations,” he told the board.

School commissioners signed off on them unanimously, with Commissioner Martine Gulick abstaining.

The district will now draft a new memorandum of understanding with the police department, Flanagan said, which he has already discussed with Mayor Miro Weinberger and acting Police Chief Jon Murad. 

Flanagan called those conversations “fruitful” and said the mayor and chief were both willing to work with the district on a new plan.

The task force was composed of eleven members, including Sparks, City Councilor Zoraya Hightower, School Commissioner Aden Haji, students and school resource officer Michael Henry. It began meeting in October 2020.

The resulting report investigated the history and implementation of Burlington’s school resource officer program, offering several key findings that led to the decision to restrict the program.

The first of those findings, said Emma Kouri, a parent who served on the task force, was that the in-school officers spent much of their time “filling in gaps” in work unrelated to law enforcement.

“The majority of SRO activity is not associated with law enforcement but with mentoring students and connecting them with needed resources,” the report says, noting that “these additional roles fell to the SROs due to social workers being overwhelmed with cases.”

This work, the report concluded, should instead be done by hiring two new “student safety specialists” trained in restorative justice practices.

Furthermore, the report found wide racial disparities in disciplinary action taken by school resource officers — in line with disparities seen in policing in Burlington and nationally.

Over a seven-year period, Black students made up between 30% and 60% of “juvenile arrests” by in-school officers, although Black students make up only about 16% of the student population.

Still, the task force stopped short of recommending the program be eliminated entirely, an outcome some in the community had sought.

The reasoning behind this was to preserve the district’s communication with the police department. Administrators had emphasized the importance of the relationship, which, the report found, was used at times to “provide information on student safety.” 

Moving forward, Sparks and other members of the task force will oversee the district’s implementation of the recommendations.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the role Henri Sparks played in leading the district task force report.

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Katya Schwenk

About Katya

A native Vermonter, Katya is assigned to VTDigger's Burlington Bureau. She is a 2020 graduate of Georgetown University, where she majored in political science with a double minor in creative writing and Arabic. She was a contributing writer for the Indypendent in New York, an assistant editor at the Boston Review and a writer for the Scoop News Group and Morocco World News in Rabat. 

Email: [email protected]

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