Hatfield joins other Valley schools in hiring a resource officer

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  • Hatfield School Resource Officer Monica Lavallee is greeted by Madison Renner and Renner's friend and fellow fourth grader Jillian Lavallee, at right, who happens to be Lavallee's niece, as they arrive in the elementary school gym for the first day of classes, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hatfield School Resource Officer Monica Lavallee, right, and Hatfield Schools adjustment counselor Celeste Palladino, who are both new to the schools, introduce themselves to students at the elementary school on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hatfield School Resource Officer Monica Lavallee started her new job at the elementary school on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, the first day of classes in Hatfield. She is scheduled to split eight hours a week between the high school and elementary school. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hatfield School Resource Officer Monica Lavallee says hello to Amber Mihalak and her nine-month-old daughter Madison as they bring Madison's big sister, Riley Campanella, to her first day of fifth grade at Hatfield Elementary School on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hatfield School Resource Officer Monica Lavallee joined students who were gathered in the Hatfield Elementary School gym waiting for the start of classes on the first day of school, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, which was also her first day in the new job. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hatfield School Resource Officer Monica Lavallee checks on a new student at the elementary school who said she wasn't sure where to go on the first day of classes, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hatfield School Resource Officer Monica Lavallee, who lives in Hatfield, chats with her niece Jillian Lavallee, center, and friend Madison Renner, both fourth-graders, as they wait in the elementary school gym for the start of classes on the first day of the school, Thursday. STAFF PHOTOS/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hatfield School Resource Officer Monica Lavallee joined students who were gathered in the Hatfield Elementary School gym waiting for the start of classes on the first day of school, Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019, which was also her first day in the new job. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hatfield Schools Superintendent John Robert talks about having a school resource officer for the Hatfield schools during an interview with the Gazette at the elementary school on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 8/29/2019 9:11:38 PM

HATFIELD — When students arrived at Hatfield Elementary for the first day of school on Thursday, there was a new face there: Monica Lavallee, a member of the Hatfield Police and the school’s new resource officer. Lavallee greeted students and told them if they need to talk to an adult, they can come to her.

“This is something both the police chief and I have wanted to do for the past 10 years,” said Superintendent John Robert. In the district, he said, there has never been a resource officer, a police officer who works in the school.

Thanks to a grant from the Department of Education, this school year Lavallee will work eight hours a week in the district, splitting her time between Smith Academy and Hatfield Elementary.

In Hampshire County, many school districts, such as Northampton, Easthampton and Hadley, have resource officers who were added to schools in recent years. Across the country, 43 percent of public schools said that in the 2015-16 school year they regularly had a sworn law officer with a gun at the school, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

The stated purpose of school resource officers is to promote safety and prevent crime in schools and to serve as “educators, emergency managers, and informal counselors,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

But some groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, say that having officers in the schools will increase the school-to-prison pipeline, defined by the ACLU as “a disturbing national trend where children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”

According to the National Association of School Resource Officers, the job is the quickest growing area in law enforcement.

Hampshire County schools

With 439 K-12 students last year, Hatfield is a small school district compared to the rest of the state. “I don’t think we have a lot of the traditional concerns that bigger schools have,” Robert said. “The drugs in the schools and those types of things aren’t issues that come to the forefront.”

Robert said recent shootings around the country weren’t a factor in the district’s decision to hire a school resource officer, but he heard concerns from parents. “I would say, right after we had the incidents in Florida, at Parkland, there were parents who had asked, why don’t we have a resource officer? We were asked that.”

Lavallee will help with a districtwide campaign on cyberbullying and talk with students about issues like drinking and driving. She is also working to improve school safety; on Tuesday, she did emergency training for school staff.

Another goal for students is “getting them familiar with a police officer in uniform and knowing they can go to them and ask questions,” said Lavallee, sitting at a table in the elementary school with a gun on her belt, wearing a collared black shirt with her last name on the chest and a Hatfield Police patch on the arm.

She’s aware of concerns about discipline.

“Sometimes people ask about, ‘Oh, are you going to be the new disciplinarian?’” she said. “People think, ‘Oh police, it must be criminal, you’re going to question me.’

“That’s not the case. I have no disciplinary jurisdiction in the school system unless it involved a crime ... I’m solely a mentor and resource to staff and children.”

Resistance

There is no position like Lavallee’s in Amherst schools, though the school does work with point people at the Amherst Police Department, Superintendent Michael Morris said.

Adding a resource officer in the high school was considered in 1999, after several violent incidents in the school. In March 1997, for example, four boys put a homemade bomb in an unused locker in the middle school, forcing the evacuation of the school while the bombs were disarmed.

Scott Goldman, the high school principal at the time, withdrew the idea after community members, many of them people of color, spoke out at public meetings against the idea of a police presence in the high school. Their concerns were that it would have negative effects on the students of color.

“Public support for the proposal has been virtually absent,” Goldman wrote in a letter to staff at the time, adding that a resource officer seemed “antithetical” to the school’s goal to become a multicultural school system.

In the past five years, Morris said, it hasn’t been considered again.

Rahsaan Hall, racial justice program director at the ACLU Massachusetts, shares the concerns some had in Amherst.

He said the use of resource officers in schools coincided with the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and worries about school safety.

School resource officers, he said, have worsened racial disparities in school discipline, which already are a problem for students of color. In general, students of color and students with disabilities are suspended and expelled at a higher rate than their counterparts, according to U.S. Department of Education data.

Hall thinks school resource officers will increase those disparities and the school-to-prison pipeline. With officers in schools, he said, “We see an inordinate amount of students ending up with criminal records for what in a bygone era would just be kids being kids,” he said.

“Instead of investing in school resource officers,” he continued, “schools need to invest in guidance counselors, social workers and school nurses.”

Counseling role

In Northampton and Hadley the officers and school administrators say that the role of the officer is not a disciplinary one.

“I guarantee you, it’s not what you’re thinking, it’s not what you’re afraid of … It’s not what the big bad media says about it,” Josh Wallace, a school resource officer in Northampton, said about his job, which he has done for five years.

Wallace works in all schools in the district, including Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, on issues of school safety and building positive relationships with students. “All kinds of things that the kids come to me for have nothing to do with police work,” he said. For instance, kids talk to him when they feel stressed out, he said.

While he has known students who have been charged with crimes, the goal is to reach them before that happens, said Wallace, who is available to talk to students, along with the school adjustment counselor and an administrator.

“In five years, I’ve made one arrest,” he said. Last school year, he said, there were two court summonses for incidents in school, and the cases went through the juvenile court system.

Michael Romano, a Hadley Police sergeant who oversees the program in Hadley schools, said they have never had to take a student into custody, but he works with the juvenile courts when necessary.

“We make every effort for preventative education and — even then if something does occur — to change the behavior and help the students make the right decision if possible,” Romano said.

In Hatfield, Robert said the grant funding for a school resource officer can be renewed and that he hopes the program will continue.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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