On February 17, 2021

In-school police can be a big asset, if they’re like Officer Clemmons

By Curtis Hier

Some of us are old enough to remember when Mr. Rogers welcomed Officer Clemmons into his neighborhood and onto his television show. They famously shared a foot bath. And a towel.

It was a momentous television event because Francois Clemmons was black and also, as Fred Rogers knew at the time, was gay. What’s important in this story right now is that Officer Clemmons was actually a police officer. And the year was 1968.

Police brutality was a huge issue in 1968, as it was turning its attention from civil rights protests and increasingly toward antiwar protests. But the civil rights battles were still raw. Selma was three years earlier, and Dr. King’s assassination was that year. If ever a time when police seemed a scary and “triggering” presence, this would be it. If ever a time when armed authority figures were scary, this would be it.

Sure, Fred Rogers knew this was an important time to welcome an African American to his program. But it was also time to bring a friendly cop into the lives of young children.

Fast-forward to 30 years later, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold would shoot up Columbine High School in Colorado. And it would become important to have a police presence in our high schools.

When I read of students in Burlington, Winooski and Montpelier being frightened by the presence of police officers in their high schools, I realize that this makes the case for having a friendly cop in our elementary schools among our youngest schoolchildren. An Officer Clemmons. Someone the kids can trust. And the kids can bring that trust to high school.

If school officers are not friendly, school officials need to expel them from their buildings. If school officials in Burlington, Winooski and Montpelier are letting embedded police officers behave unprofessionally, they themselves are the problem.

Not all law enforcement officers are a good fit for schools. But that should be worked out on the local level, between the school district and the law enforcement department.

I teach at the high school in Fair Haven. I’ll be retiring this year, so the Senate bill to remove police officers from schools will not compromise my safety. But I care deeply about the issue. Our school officials in Fair Haven are on top of potential issues of equity and how our police officers handle themselves.

Our school resource officers over the years have been caring, well-liked, respected, and professional in every way. They have a philosophy that teachers and administration should handle discipline while they keep us safe. The model has worked well.

And yet, in 2018, at virtually the same time as the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, we received a detailed and credible threat to the safety of our students. The governor and Legislature took the threat so seriously, in fact, that they adopted unprecedented gun control measures for Vermont. Now, it seems there is a group of state senators that either have no memory of the disturbing incident or no regard for our safety.

It’s not just about having fewer police officers who are abusive and unprofessional. That’s important, to be sure. But it’s also about having more officers like Officer Clemmons. The answer is more funding. Better funding. Not defunding.

Curtis Hier has taught social studies and history for 34 years at Fair Haven Union High School in Fair Haven. He is a recent president of the Vermont Alliance for Social Studies.

Do you want to submit feedback to the editor?

Send Us An Email!

Related Posts

A public education Vermonters support and value

May 22, 2024
By Margaret MacLean Editor’s note: Margaret MacLean, from Peacham, has been an educator for 50 years, working as a teacher, school principal and consultant both in Vermont, the U.S. and internationally. Over the past 14 years Vermont has enacted three sweeping school district consolidation laws. The overarching goals of Act 153, Act 156, and Act…

Vermont’s lost submarine memorial

May 22, 2024
Dear Editor, At the Veteran Administration (VA) in White River Jct, VT, there is a distinct memorial dedicated to the Submarine USS Flier (SS 250) lost during World War II.  Ever mindful of our lost shipmates, friends and family that have served in the submarine service of our country, the U.S. Submarine Veterans, Inc. (USSVI)…

H.121 poses significant risk to Vermont’s business community

May 22, 2024
Dear Editor, As the CEO of the Vermont Country Store (VCS), I strongly support consumer privacy as does the Vermont Chamber of Commerce and many peer companies in the state. I wholeheartedly endorse the Connecticut law that was the foundation of H.121. However, as passed it is my hope that Governor Scott will veto H.121.…

Vermont’s outsize appetite for taxes

May 22, 2024
Dear Editor, Most Vermont taxpayers have just experienced a period of tax focus, specifically property taxes to support our public schools. Some communities are still going through the valuable public debate about property taxes and, more generally, the overall tax burden and trying to evaluate that relative to what we receive for our tax dollars.…