Amherst School Committee uncertain about the role of CRESS in schools

  • Some members of the Amherst School Committee are uncertain about how the new unarmed community responders in the CRESS department will interact with students. CRESS is under the direction of Earl Miller, seen here with Town Manager Paul Bockelman in April. Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 9/22/2022 9:02:06 PM

AMHERST — In a district that has discouraged school resource officers and uniformed police from being in school buildings, members of the Amherst School Committee are expressing uncertainty about how the town’s new unarmed community responders will interact with students.

Though no decisions have been made for deploying Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service, or CRESS, responders in public schools, the committee on Tuesday began discussing the topic after being informed that a memorandum of understanding is being developed between Superintendent Michael Morris and CRESS Director Earl Miller.

“I have a lot of concerns about where this is going, and my major concern is nothing is free,” committee member Irv Rhodes said.

Rhodes said there seems to be mission creep for the new public safety department, observing that during its development schools were never mentioned in terms of the services that would be provided by CRESS.

Any relationship the department has with the schools, students and parents needs to be spelled out, he said, so that the community can understand its role in the educational system.

Committee member Jennifer Shiao, too, noted that there are no police officers in schools, so CRESS responders wouldn’t be filling or replacing an existing role. “Is this a solution looking for a problem?” Shiao asked.

CRESS responders began their work in early September, and Miller said to be successful the program will be doing outreach to the community that will include both its youngest members, including schoolchildren, and senior citizens.

Morris said problems that surface outside the schools can interfere with education. CRESS, he said, may be there to assist in dealing with those matters.

“We as a school district are really challenged to navigate interpersonal conflicts between adults that don’t happen on school property,” Morris said

Miller explained that the town’s eight responders are different from police officers in that they don’t participate in surveillance, only have consensual engagement with those they serve and have no ability to detain people.

Getting to know the schools is critical to the family-centered approach CRESS is using. “We learn a lot about how families want to be treated,” Miller said.

Being at schools also allows teachers to know what can be done by the unarmed responders to address issues.

“We’re really a light touch,” Miller said. “As soon as the problem is resolved, we want to move on with our day.”

School Committee member Peter Demling said the district has been clear about not allowing school resource officers to be in the hallways. Any agreement with CRESS should recognize the trauma-informed education used in the schools, promoting the emotional and physical well-being of students and better appreciating their circumstances at home.

“Overall, I’m very positive about this,” Demling said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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