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.