Bennington Elementary School is calling the police on its own students. What’s going wrong?

More than a dozen police reports and interviews with former staffers at Bennington Elementary School paint a picture of a school struggling to respond to students in mental health crises. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger; Illustration by Natalie Williams/VTDigger

At 11:44 a.m. on Sept. 23, 2021, a police officer was dispatched to Bennington Elementary School.  

The officer, Amanda Knox, was responding to a report of a “juvenile out of control.” Knox spoke with the student, who said that he “was having a bad day” and admitted to “acting out violently towards others and towards school property,” according to a police report written by Knox. 

The two had a conversation about controlling feelings of anger and speaking with school counselors, according to Knox’s report. After that, she wrote, “Thus ends my involvement.”

Less than an hour later, Knox was back at the school, this time to address the actions of another student. 

The second student — who was also “out of control,” Knox wrote — had attacked a teacher and classmates, according to the school’s principal. The child admitted that she “had hit the teacher in the face,” according to Knox’s report, and was eventually sent home.

Those two incidents’ proximity underscores an unsettling pattern. From September 2021 through October 2022, police were called to Bennington Elementary School — which educates roughly 300 children from pre-K to fifth grade — more than a dozen times to respond to student behavior, documents show.

Many of those calls, like those on Sept. 23, were instances of students acting “out of control,” in the words of the reports. Other times, staff called police when a student left or attempted to leave the school during class time. 

Those records, as well as interviews with multiple former staff members at the school, lay bare a mental health crisis at the elementary school. And they show how, for struggling staff and administrators at the school, calls to the police — a tactic that civil rights advocates and educators say should be used as a last resort — became commonplace. 

“I've worked in five or six different school systems over my career, and I’ve never seen anything quite like that,” one former Bennington Elementary employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions, said of the school environment. 

‘Pretty severe mental health problems’

In some ways, Bennington Elementary School is weathering national trends. After Covid-19 upended traditional school settings for three academic years, experts have grown increasingly concerned that children’s mental health is deteriorating. 

Last year, national children’s health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, declared a “national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.” 

That has contributed to what administrators say is a surge in student behavioral problems in schools. 

But Bennington is also an outlier. During the 2021-22 school year, 100% of the school’s students qualified for free and reduced-price lunches — an indicator of poverty — according to state data. Bennington County has one of the state’s highest rates of deaths by opioid overdose, and the community has seen an increase in violence, much of it gang-related, this past year, according to Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette. 

Bennington Elementary School in Bennington on Tuesday, Nov. 22. Police are sometimes called to other schools in Bennington for behavioral issues, Doucette said in an interview. But Bennington Elementary “seems to be the highest requester for law enforcement services,” he said. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Police are sometimes called to other schools in Bennington for behavioral issues, Doucette said in an interview. But Bennington Elementary “seems to be the highest requester for law enforcement services,” he said. 

Those calls have increased in frequency during the Covid-19 pandemic, he said, adding, “I don't remember a time when we've had so many calls to our local schools for service.”

“As the police chief, I mean, I certainly have reservations about sending an officer to a school with a student that's experiencing behavioral issues,” Doucette said. “Especially at 5 years old or 8 years old, because certainly we're not going to use force on a young student like that.”

Police reports VTDigger obtained through a public records request and interviews with former staff members paint an alarming picture of student behavior in the school. 

In December 2021, an officer responded to a call to find a “vulgar and threatening” 10-year-old student who “was able to grab this officer’s reading glasses from his vest and snap them.”

The following month, an officer responded to a call about a fourth-grader who was “throwing sharp objects.” By the time the officer arrived, “the classroom was … destroyed and chairs and belongings were scattered everywhere.”

The student was wrapped in a blanket, the officer wrote, and taken to Southwestern Vermont Medical Center to be evaluated. 

In September, an officer confronted a student who had “‘barricaded’ himself in the library and was throwing books around.”  

The police reports and Doucette identified the callers as school administrators or staff.

Four former employees, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions or consequences at their current jobs, described an environment in which young children would throw furniture, hurl profanities and racial slurs, and attempt or threaten to harm themselves and others.

“A lot of the kids have some pretty severe mental health problems that reveal themselves constantly and were not taken care of,” one former employee said.   

Many children “come in without their basic needs met,” another former employee said. “You know, how do you expect them to perform well in class when they're hungry, they're not clean, they're tired? Their parents fight, their parents use drugs, abuse alcohol.”

‘They were run ragged’

Elizabeth Grunberg, the principal of Bennington Elementary School, did not respond to messages and calls seeking comment. A spokesperson for the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, which includes Bennington, declined multiple requests from VTDigger to make Grunberg available for an interview.

James Culkeen, the supervisory union’s superintendent, also declined multiple requests from VTDigger for an interview.

In an emailed statement, Culkeen said that district residents had been “significantly impacted” by the Covid-19 pandemic. He did not explicitly mention the school’s frequent calls to police. 

Jim Culkeen
Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Superintendent Jim Culkeen. Bennington Banner file photo

The school has partnerships with multiple local community organizations, including United Counseling Services and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, and has brought on new staff to help with student mental health and well-being in the 2022-23 school year, Culkeen said.  

“A small but persistent segment of our community struggles with food security, stable housing, substance abuse, and mental health needs, which impact children’s ability to arrive at school ready to learn,” Culkeen wrote in the email. “In recent years, our schools have been stretched to provide much more than education.”

“The safety of our staff and students is of utmost importance,” he wrote in a follow-up email.

But former staffers said that administrators struggled to respond to student behavior. 

Ex-staffers described an environment in which the school’s behavior specialists wore earpieces — like “Kindergarten Cop,” one said — and responded to frequent radio calls from teachers when a student began acting out. 

“They were run ragged with calls,” one former staffer said. “They were on the radio constantly.” 

Two former employees said that administrators were unaware of the rules around restraints for students, meaning students would sometimes be subject to unnecessary or dangerous physical restraints. Consequences for student misbehavior were inconsistent, if they took place at all, former staff members said. 

“I've just never heard of kids assaulting staff or students and not having a disciplinary consequence,” another former employee said. “There was no follow-up.” 

The use of discipline on young students is regulated by Vermont statute. Schools cannot suspend or expel students under 8 years old unless they pose an “imminent threat of harm or danger.”   

State officials and advocates instead promote the use of restorative practices — alternatives to discipline intended to build community and avoid punishment. 

But at Bennington Elementary, the volume of crises has prevented the use of such practices, former employees said. Programs intended to avoid punishment — such as restorative practices or positive reinforcement systems — were not implemented or only partially implemented, former employees said.

“You can't really effectively plan a restorative session if, like, when somebody's saying, ‘Nope, you need to come to this crisis right now,’” one former staff member said. 

In an email, Culkeen said that restorative practices were encouraged but not required in the supervisory union’s schools. 

“We also offer appropriate professional learning opportunities for staff,” he said. 

Meaghan Morgan-Puglisi, president of the teachers unit of the Southwest Vermont Education Association and a teacher at Mount Anthony Union High School, said the labor union is “deeply concerned about the safety of our members and our students.”

The schools “do not have sufficient resources to keep dysregulated and violent students in the building,” she said. “While we are not advocating a wide use of suspension, we need more support, including more clinicians and more wrap-around community supports.”

The problem, she said, had reached “crisis proportions in our district.”

‘It’s gonna take us a while’

Heather Bouchey, Vermont’s deputy secretary of education, said in an interview that state officials are aware that Bennington Elementary School — and others — have struggled with children’s mental health. 

Late in the pandemic’s third year, Vermont schools are still grappling with both mental health challenges, which were on the rise even before the pandemic, and widespread staffing shortages. Calling the police to address student behavior should be rare, she said, adding that when it happens, it’s a sign that staff have exhausted their existing options.

Heather Bouchey, deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education, speaks at a press conference in August 2021. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

“From the agency's perspective and, I believe, from most trained educators’ and administrators’ perspective,” she said, “your first action would not be, ‘I'm going to call the police on a student.’” 

She pointed to state-level efforts to address the problem, including legislation that set up a grant program to improve schools’ counseling and mental health services. It also requires the state to contract with “one or more organizations to provide statewide COVID-19 recovery supports for educators and school staff.”  

“But I really can't express enough how we are still navigating the results of the pandemic,” she said. “And it's gonna take us a while.”

In Bennington, youth mental health has worried community members for years. 

In the fourth quarter of 2018, Southwestern Vermont Medical Center’s emergency department had nearly 300 visits from children in crisis, according to the nonprofit United Counseling Service of Bennington County. 

Children stayed on average 20 hours in the hospital. At least one stayed for a full month.  

“Numbers were increasing as well as the intensity of behaviors,” the United Counseling Service stated in a January 2020 PowerPoint presentation filed with the Legislature. “Many of the children go to the (emergency department) directly from local schools.”

The crisis led United Counseling Service and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center to found PUCK, or Psychiatric Urgent Care for Kids, a therapeutic space intended for children in acute crisis. PUCK opened in 2019. 

But many say that the pandemic exacerbated many of the needs that PUCK was intended to serve.

State officials are aware that Bennington Elementary School — and others — have struggled with children’s mental health. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Lorna Mattern, United Counseling Service’s executive director, said students were grappling with “a lot of trauma that's occurred in our community and the schools with the pandemic.”

Remote learning during the pandemic was an isolating experience for children, she said, and may have exposed them to dangerous or insecure home environments.

“We were all, really, very much unprepared for the effects of the pandemic on kids and how that would present itself,” Mattern said. 

Police in schools

It’s difficult to track how often police respond to calls about student behavior at other elementary schools in Vermont.

Officials in two other districts said law enforcement usually does not get involved in school disciplinary actions. 

“It is incredibly rare that we call the police because of behavioral incidents at any grade, but especially in elementary schools,” Russell Elek, a spokesperson for the Burlington School District, said in an email last month. 

The district has “an understanding” with the Burlington Police Department, Elek said: School discipline is “not a police issue but a District issue.”

Elaine Collins, superintendent of the North Country Supervisory Union, said that in her six years working in the supervisory union, she could recall two instances in which police were called to an elementary school for a behavioral issue.

In her time with the supervisory union, which covers roughly a dozen schools in Orleans and Essex counties, administrators have worked to increase mental health resources with clinicians, counselors and “social-emotional learning coaches,” she said. 

“I think some of that is kind of the growing nature of need in our society, but a lot of it has to do with the lack of local resources that we have,” Collins said. 

Some districts in Vermont, however, utilize school resource officers — armed law enforcement officers in uniform — to ensure security on campuses. 

School Resource Officer Jason Ziter of the Winooski Police Department places a chain across the driveway at the end of the day at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in September 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

In the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union, school resource officers from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office are stationed in schools. It is an arrangement that Lynn Cota, the superintendent, called “fortunate” for the supervisory union.

It is not rare for those officers to intervene, even in elementary schools, when a student is “posing an imminent risk to themselves or to others,” Cota said. So far this school year, she said, that has happened “a couple of times” across all grade levels. 

“In my mind, the real story is how limited public schools are in terms of what they can access for supports for kids who are really struggling,” she said. 

A last resort

As of June 2020, roughly half of Vermont’s districts had a school resource officer on campus, a VTDigger investigation found. At that time, the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union had budgeted $245,000 for officers in elementary schools. 

But in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, and amid data showing that officers were more likely to arrest Black students and children with disabilities, many districts reassessed their relationships with school resource officers. 

Falko Schilling, a lobbyist for the Vermont chapter of the ACLU, said that police operating in schools “should be a last resort.”

Data shows that police intervention and arrests in schools disproportionately affect students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ students, Schilling said in an interview. 

“For many students, and for many people in the general public, interactions with law enforcement can be fear-inducing and anxiety-producing,” he said.

Children are better served when schools hire support staff, such as mental health professionals and counselors, who “can help prevent some of the discipline problems which might require the intervention of a law enforcement officer further down the road when those resources aren't present,” Schilling said. 

He noted that outside reviews of the Bennington Police Department have identified flaws in its practices. A 2020 report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that the department had a “warrior mentality” and had “sown deep distrust” in the community. 

Paul Doucette
Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette. File photo by Holly Pelczynski/ Bennington Banner

And in 2021, a Vermont Human Rights Commission report concluded that there were “reasonable grounds to believe” that the department had discriminated against Kiah Morris, then the only Black woman serving in Vermont’s House of Representatives, by mishandling the investigation into her harassment by a white supremacist. 

Morris reached a nearly $140,000 settlement with the town of Bennington following the Commission’s investigation.

Bennington has been engaged in a yearslong effort to reform the department. The Community Policing Advisory Review Board, a group of civilian residents, held its first formal meeting last month, although the body does not have the sweeping oversight powers officials originally intended. 

But the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union has still considered posting police officers at schools. It has budgeted funds for resource officers at every elementary school, but most of those positions have gone unfilled, school officials said. 

That’s due to staffing shortages, according to Culkeen, the superintendent, and Doucette, the police chief. 

“I have to provide a certain level of service to this entire community, not just the schools,” Doucette said.  

Culkeen said in an email that Bennington Elementary has brought on a handful of new support staff during the 2022-23 school year, including a clinician, a nurse, a social worker and a behavior interventionist. 

But, he said, “the needs of our community frequently exceed the resources available for some of our most vulnerable populations.”

“There are no easy answers to the complex challenges such as these,” he said. 

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Peter D'Auria

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