Easthampton school officers question draws strong responses

  • Students leave Easthampton High School at the end of their school day, Friday, Mar. 13, 2020. Classes at the school have been cancelled for two weeks and are slated to resume on March 30.

Staff Writer
Published: 8/18/2020 7:11:50 PM

EASTHAMPTON — As the school district weighs whether or not to continue to have school resource officers, residents on both sides of the issue are letting their voices be heard.

The School Committee, following a lengthy public comment period, voted at its meeting last week to instruct Superintendent Allison LeClair to ask the state for a waiver for the requirement to have a police officer in its schools. However, this unanimous vote was made with the understanding that no decision has yet been reached on whether the positions would be abolished.

The School Committee plans on working with the school’s Equity Steering Committees as it examines the issue, and is encouraging people to weigh in.

“We’re thinking before the end of this year,” said School Committee Chair Cynthia Kwiecinski, on when a decision on SROs would be made.

She also said a survey will be distributed to students in the middle and high school for them to give their input.

The matter was brought before the committee by Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, who also serves on the School Committee and supports doing away with school resource officers in the city.

This summer, the police received a federal grant for a second school resource officer. Should school resource officers be eliminated, funding for those positions would be diverted to community policing outside the school, said Police Chief Robert Alberti.

At the meeting, numerous people spoke for and against abolishing school resource officers.

Christy Daley, the nurse at White Brook Middle School, spoke in support of Detective Rick Rogalski, who has served as the school resource officer in Easthampton since September 2017.

“He’s not intimidating to the students at all,” she said. “They do not fear him — they look up to him. He’s their friend.”

Rogalski also spoke in defense of his position, saying that most of his work involves building relationships with students and that he doesn’t discipline them. He also said he’s never arrested a student at school and has referred only one student to the district attorney’s office, and that was to put the student into a program so that they could avoid having a criminal record.

“I love being in the schools and helping children” Rogalski said. “I think we’ll be doing the students and the schools a disservice if we get rid of the SRO program.”

Rogalski also said that he doesn’t wear his uniform in the schools, with the exception of when he teaches the DARE program.

Alberti said that while he supports the school resource officer program, the police will defer to what the community decides.

Nataly Gomez was one of the speakers who weighed in against the program.

“You want to continue to do community policing?” she said. “Absolutely. Enjoy doing it outside of schools.”

Eric Poulin, meanwhile, pointed to a number of peer-reviewed scientific studies and said that “there is no tangible connection between school resource officers and increased student safety, increased student engagement or student success.”

LeClair told the Gazette that she has not yet filed the waiver, but plans on doing so, and said that the issue is “a discussion worth having with people who have strong views on both sides.”

An online petition in support of the program has accumulated 452 signatures along with 78 comments, while a private Facebook group formed in support of the program has 695 members.

“Please keep this program in place,” reads a comment on the petition from Denise Orwat. “Not only is it great for the kids and police to forge positive relationships, it’s also important to have the presence in the schools to keep our precious children safe from the harm that can come from disturbed individuals.”

Luis Ramos is another supporter of the program, telling the Gazette that he believes it can build positive impressions of the police.

“I just think there’s so many positives,”he said. “It outweighs the few negatives.”

On the other side of the issue, the community organization 01027: A Knee Is Not Enough, which is pushing for a series of changes to the city’s police department and drew about 200 people to a protest earlier this month, has removing the school’s school resource officer and replacing the position with a counselor as one of its demands.

“AKINE see this as a good allocation of resources and a positive step,” the organization said in a written statement on the School Committee’s action. “It is obvious there shouldn’t be any unnecessary personnel in the schools when the student body will be receiving services remotely for an indefinite period of time, especially as the city is facing budgetary shortfalls. We welcome the waiver and review that is guided by data and a review of efficacious practices.”

Organization member Jason Montgomery said he was encouraged by the responses of the School Committee, mayor and police chief on the issue.

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