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School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon addresses the City Council's public health committee on Monday.

Pittsfield Councilors Start School Resource Officer Conversation

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
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Karen Kalinowsy, who was a school resource officer during her police career, talks about the benefits of the position in the Pittsfield Public Schools. 
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Committee on Public Health and Safety approved taking up a petition to fill the vacant resource officer position at Reid Middle School and began the conversation about police presence in the schools. 
 
The City Council subcommittee acknowledged Monday night that it did not have the power to dictate staffing levels in the police force or schools but took the opportunity to hear from residents and city and school officials about school resource officers (SRO).
 
"I want to thank you everybody that has taken the time to address a very important issue," Chairwoman Helen Moon said. "Especially about our children and I don't think there is anybody in our community that does not want every child to feel safe."
 
The item first came up last month when Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Maffuccio submitted a petition asking the city to immediately fill the vacant resource officer position at Reid.
 
Mayor Linda Tyer explained that because of unanticipated resignations in the Police Department, patrol officers are rotating into the position temporarily until the city can hire more officers and fill the Reid post with a specifically trained officer.
 
A larger conversation broke out about whether there should be a police presence in the schools and during public comment residents spoke to both sides of the issue.
 
The item was referred to the Committee on Public Health and Safety and invitations were extended to the chief of police and representatives from the schools to begin a more holistic conversation on the matter.
 
The meeting clocked in over two hours with dozens of residents filling the council chambers.
 
Committee members asked school and city officials questions about the SRO position and Police Chief Michael Wynn said the officers undergo specific training and have other duties beyond just being present in the schools.
 
He specified the SRO's duty is to serve the school community they are assigned to and investigate crimes and prevent disorder. Secondly, they help better school security.
 
Wynn spoke to the selection process and said he would work with the superintendent to select the right officer for the job. He said if the officer is not right for the job, he would remove him or her from the duty.
 
"We put people in the school that we think are going to be successful in establishing relationships," he said. "We have SROs in schools that have run after-school martial arts programs and they always volunteer in some capacity in the community ... it is their job to find ways to expand their reach."
 
He said there would likely be more 911 calls without an officer in the school and although an SRO likely would call for back up if there was a situation, they would more immediately be able to address an occurrence.
 
Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless said the SROs work with other school support services. He added that it is rare for them to make an arrest.
 
"That is almost unheard of and there are sometimes charges brought forward for behavior," he said.
 
Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell reiterated that the council really does not have the authority to make staffing demands but said he would listen to any proposal from the police and school department in regard to placing a full-time RSO in the school.
 
Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi agreed and thought students and staff have the right to feel safe in the classroom.
 
"I think the No. 1 thing is safety. Parents when they send their children off to school want to know their children are safe," he said.
 
Connell added that if students do not feel safe they are more likely to choice out of the district.
 
Moon was the only voice in opposition. The Ward 1 councilor said because the council really had no authority in the matter she was unwilling to vote in favor of it. Also she wanted to continue the conversation and see the new SRO memorandum of understanding that is currently being updated.
 
Moon did air some of her own concerns and wanted to make sure there were clear expectations and qualifications for SRO.
 
"I think being very clear about the expectations from the school resource officer and the community's understanding of what they do is important to talk about," she said. "We need to make sure the right personnel are there ... and there are safeguards so that every kid feels safe and protected."
 
She said she hopes the School Department is open to other arrangements and added that race must be acknowledged when discussing the issue.
 
And she added that not all kids feel safe with a police presence in the classroom. 
 
Maffuccio thanked the police for their efforts and said he was optimistic that the department would be able to place a full time SRO in the school next school year but Wynn said he really could not anticipate if they will be fully staffed by then  
 
Wynn gave a staffing update and said currently they are down 14 officers. He did not have a clear indication of when they will be fully staffed again but said there are currently officers in the academy.
 
"This is not a question of willingness. It is not a question of desire," he said. "We simply do not have the number of officers in the patrol division to allow someone in the school full time right now."
 
Parents, students, and community members spoke during the first hour of the meeting and most were in favor of the officer in the schools.
 
Many speakers were parents who felt the resource officer served as an important mentor to students. Also with more violence in the schools and gang activity in the city parents felt the schools were safer with an officer in the hallways.
 
Other parents read testimonials from their kids who wrote that they felt safer in school with a resource officer.
 
School Committee members also spoke in favor of the resource officer position with Chairwoman Christine Yon saying it was not an "either/or" scenario and that schools need resource officers, mediators, and counselors. 
 
"Our schools need both and their roles are not the same," she said. "This is all about coming together learning about each other, trusting each other, as we work to build a stronger community inside and outside of our schools." 
 
This sentiment was shared by School Committee member Dennis Powell who thought the schools needed more resources. Committee member Mark Brazeau also said the resource officer is an important community liaison that works between the schools, the city, and police.
 
Reid Principal Linda Whitacre said the SRO is an important part of the school community and read data from a survey stating that only 55 percent of parents felt that the school was safe. She also read a list of incidents that occurred throughout the year so far including physical altercations and sexual offences.
 
She said they appreciate the support from the Police Department and noted violence among children is a larger issue in the city.
 
Former resource officer Karen Kalinowsky shared some of her own experiences. She said she often took on greater duties because of a lack of resources in the school and noted it was always important to work together with other support staff.  
 
"When everyone works together things work better you work as one," she said. "You work with administration, you work with the teachers, you work with the kids."
 
She added that students benefit from interacting with police at a younger age and said in her time she tried to help as many kids as she could.
 
There were some voices against a SRO and although resident Drew Herzog agreed that school resource officers may be part of the answer, he thought more needs to be done to help kids before a resource officer must intervene.
 
He suggested investing more in early intervention and treating the trauma before having to treat the behavior. He added that if structural racism is not included in the discussion the council is "betraying the public trust."
 
Eden Renee Hayes echoed Herzog and feared putting an officer in the school would reinforce the "school to prison pipeline."

Tags: Pittsfield Police,   pittsfield schools,   

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Local Woman Organizing 'Bear Hunt' in Berkshires This Weekend

By Rebecca DravisiBerkshires Staff

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A local woman is spearheading a "bear hunt" this weekend - bears of the toy kind, that is.

Inspired by the book "We're Going on a Bear Hunt," which Susan Wrba likes to read with her 2-year-old son, Wrba is organizing a "bear hunt" across the Berkshires from Friday, April 3, to Sunday, April 5.

Families can participate in two ways: One, they can put a stuffed, toy or otherwise creatively designed bear in their front window or porch. (Wrba said her father-in-law is planning a mechanical bear of some sort at his home in Pittsfield.) Families who do this should go to the Facebook event page Wrba has set up here to let people know what street they can spot a bear in. And two, families can drive around looking for the bears -- safely from their car, or, if many bears are located in a single neighborhood, by taking an appropriately socially distanced walk along that neighborhood.

Wrba said she got the idea from a friend in Haverhill, where a similar project happened in March. It appealed to her not only because the book was one of her son's favorites but also because she was looking for ways to connect to the outside world during this time of isolation.

"I've been trying to think of ways to feel connected that aren't virtual," said Wrba, who lives in New Lebanon, N.Y., with her husband her two children, which include a 7-week-old baby boy in addition to the 2-year-old. "I love that you are able to be creative in your own home but also get out in a way that's safe and interesting."

Wrba said she was worried it wasn't catching on at first, but thanks to the power of social media and some friends with downtown Pittsfield connections, she's hopeful it will be a success. As of Wednesday afternoon, nearly two dozen people had posted addresses (posting a street names only is fine, as it adds a little challenge to the hunt and protects people's privacy) on the Facebook page.

"It's been great," she said, adding that the format of asking people to leave bears out over a three-day period will allow families to "jump in and participate" in a way that fits their schedule.

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