WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Although the year is starting remotely for the town's public school students, members of the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee are raising concerns about the police presence at the buildings kids will attend as soon as Oct. 5.
It is a topic that has been mentioned before in town and Mount Greylock Regional School District forums, but the comments at last week's DIRE Committee meeting were as strong as any to date in an official forum.
"I have people who have reached out to me that are afraid to bring their kids to the school because there are police officers there," Jeffrey Johnson said. "I'm just trying to help answer some of their questions.
"There's a much bigger monumental issue. That's what I want to throw out there because, unfortunately, some of these families have to bring their kids to school in less than a week."
Johnson made his remarks last Thursday. While the school year begins on Wednesday, the majority of students, except for those receiving special education services, will be attending classes online until next month, when the district transitions to a hybrid model of instruction.
Johnson's colleague Bilal Ansari picked up on the idea that for reasons having to do with both national policing issues and local allegations of racism in the Williamstown Police Department, residents of color, in particular, are threatened by the presence of police officers.
"You have to recognize that there are people who are keeping their children home because of this pandemic [of racism] also," Ansari said. "We can dialogue all day until we're blue in the face, but that's a pandemic. When you see an officer in front of a school, and you don't feel safe — you as a parent — that's a pandemic."
Although neither Williamstown Elementary nor Mount Greylock Regional School has a resource officer, the elementary school has for seven years had a regular law enforcement presence in the school's parking lot during drop-off and pickup times to help control traffic and ensure safety.
"We received a complaint on the morning of Sept. 26, 2013, from a parent, spoke with the school during the day and then started the checks that afternoon," Williamstown Police Chief Kyle Johnson replied to a request asking about how long an officer has been stationed in the parking lot.
Former WES Principal Joelle Brookner said she could not recall the exact time frame but confirmed that the request for a police presence started with parental concerns.
"While the WPD always had the elementary school and the crosswalks on its morning rounds, at some point (and I really can't remember when), traffic flow and safety in the parking lot became a concern for parents, and, to the best of my recollection, it was brought to the School Committee for discussion," Brookner said. "The school never paid the WPD for services."
In November 2012, Brookner told the School Committee that about half the school's 442 pupils either walked or were driven to school by parents and suggested that the district might have to look at paying a staff member to monitor the parking lot during drop-off and pickup.
This month, first-year Principal Kristen Thompson said she was aware there have been conversations about the police presence in the lot at arrival and dismissal but, as of last week, she had not been engaged directly on the topic.
Police in the parking lot is one issue. A June forum about racism sponsored by the regional school district touched on other intersections of the schools and WPD.
"We do not have a school resource officer dedicated here," Mount Greylock Principal Jacob Schutz said during the virtual town hall. "We have a school liaison. Those liaisons are the point persons with the principals and assistant principals at the school. The [memorandum of understanding between the district and the police departments in Lanesborough and Williamstown] outlines the goals and objectives and also reviews the roles of the police in the schools.
"It clearly states, and this was new to this MOU, that the police are not used as an intervention or a school disciplinarian or an enforcer of any sort of school regulations. We do try to get the police here in more informal ways so when they are here for official business — which is typically in a support role if someone is sick or we're planning or executing an emergency drill — students are less triggered, whether they're anxious because they think someone is hurt or triggered because it's a person in uniform.
"We often do that once a month, just having someone out having coffee in the morning."
Schutz said Mount Greylock does also hire police officers for certain events, including interscholastic athletic events when a police presence is required.
The memorandum of understanding between the district and the Williamstown Police Department is available here.
The MOU between the district and the Lanesborough Police Department is available here.