After an almost six-month hiatus due to the coronavirus, students and teachers returned to Winooski schools last week for in-person learning. One conspicuous absence on campus? School resource officer Jason Ziter.
A 20-year law enforcement veteran, Ziter has been a Winooski police officer since 2016 and the district’s armed, uniformed school resource officer for the past three years. In that role, his job has included responding to a variety of on-campus incidents, making sure students got to school safely, visiting classrooms, and teaching classes about topics from drugs and alcohol to water safety.
The school district has had the school officer position since 1999, according to Winooski Police Chief Rick Hebert.
Ziter was supposed to be on campus this year before his position is phased out of the district next school year. But disagreements about whether he can be armed in school, and whether he can wear a uniform with Winooski PD insignia, have landed him in limbo.
Ziter’s position was first called into question this summer by a group of current students and recent alumni who call themselves the Winooski Students for Anti-Racism. In July, they presented a list of eight demands to the school board, aimed at combatting racism in the district.
One demand was to eliminate the school resource officer and replace the position with two trauma specialists trained in restorative justice practices. The group of young people contended that the presence of law enforcement in schools is often threatening to nonwhite students. They also cited research that shows that school resource officers disproportionately target students of color and don’t actually make schools safer.
Winooski is Vermont’s only “majority minority” school district, with more than 50 percent students of color.
Though the school board approved the bulk of students’ demands in August, the removal of the officer position was postponed until the 2021-2022 school year because his salary had already been budgeted for this school year.
At the same August meeting, however, board members approved several changes requested by the students for this school year. The on-campus officer would be “unarmed, wearing civilian clothing, and not parked with their police car in front of the school when on school premises,” the students wrote in their revised demands.
Following that meeting, school board chair Tori Cleiland reached out to Chief Hebert to discuss the school cop position, according to Winooski City Manager Jessie Baker. The meeting, held on August 31, included Cleiland, Hebert, Baker, Winooski Schools Superintendent Sean McMannon and two student representatives from the Winooski Students for Anti-Racism, Yatrika Dharmala and Evelyn Monje.
Baker described the gathering as “a useful conversation with a lot of shared understanding and a plan for moving forward.” A decision was made then that the officer would be armed and would wear a “soft” uniform — a Winooski police department polo shirt and khaki pants — rather than civilian clothing.
File: Luke Awtry
Superintendent Sean McMannon during a previous school year
In a letter to Winooski School District staff several days later, McMannon provided an explanation for the changes.
Ziter “will continue to be armed with his complete duty belt because he has a dual role of responding to police calls in the City of Winooski and being on WSD campus during school hours so he needs his tools to do his job properly,” McMannon wrote. Meanwhile, the officer would use an unmarked vehicle that would “be parked in the second loop of our parking lot, not in front of the main entrance, and his uniform will be a polo shirt with WPD insignia and khaki pants.”
Yet the change wouldn’t be so simple. Cleiland said in a statement that she learned on Sunday, September 6, that changing a board-approved measure requires a formal process. She called an emergency meeting for that night, during which the full school board recommitted to the original demand that the officer must be unarmed and wear civilian clothing — essentially reversing the terms that had been agreed upon the week before.
"I think that we do have to understand if we go back on this, what it means," board member Margaret Bass, who is Black, said during the emergency meeting in explaining the decision to stick by the original vote. "That it’s huge: the statement it makes to the students, the statement that it makes to the persons in power and the statement it makes to the community at large."
Thierry Mugabo Uwilingiyimana, the sole Black teacher in Winooski middle and high school, reminded Cleiland of the importance of centering voices of color — especially the voices of students — when working toward an anti-racist school district. "That's the compass that should be guiding this work," he said.
The meeting ended with Cleiland asserting: "If an SRO, whether it's Jason or anyone, comes into the school, they need to be unarmed and in civilian clothing to be a part of the community. We're going to stick to that language."
Until an agreement can be reached, Officer Ziter is reporting to the police department and not the school campus, Baker said in an email last Wednesday. Ziter “remains available during school days to respond to any direct requests of students, teachers or administrators at the school district.”
Baker and Chief Hebert both said they hoped to have continued conversations about the issue in the weeks ahead. Baker said that city staff — including the police chief — “have not been invited to participate in the school trustees' discussions of the Winooski Students for Anti-Racism demands,” but she hopes to have that opportunity in the future.
During the public comment section of a school board meeting last Wednesday, Winooski School District parent teacher organization president Sarah McGowan-Freije asked the school board about Ziter’s status.
“I’m curious why he hasn’t been at school yet this week,” McGowan-Frieje said.
“He is not able to come to school unarmed as an SRO officer,” Cleiland responded.
“So he will not be at school?” McGowan-Freije asked.
“There are things still being worked out around that,” said Cleiland, noting that board members are not supposed to respond to public comments. Cleiland then moved on to the next commenter, and the subject was not addressed again.
In a phone interview on Friday, McGowan-Frieje said she was disappointed with the board’s lack of transparency in communicating with families about the position and wished the board had solicited more community input and done more research before adopting the demands of the Winooski Students for Anti-Racism.
McGowan-Frieje, who is white, said she participated in a Black Lives Matter rally in Boston in June and believes there is systemic racism in police forces across the country. However, she said that Officer Ziter “does a lot more at the school than just provide discipline,” including building relationships with students and their families.
She said she’s in favor of Ziter wearing a soft uniform and driving an unmarked car but feels that it is important he is armed so that he can respond if someone enters the school with a gun.
Winooski Police Department data show that, between 2015 and 2020, the school officer responded to 107 cases that resulted in restorative justice referrals or citations to family or criminal court.
The number of incidents declined steadily over those five years. During the 2019-2020 school year, there were just two cases. Both citations were issued to adults who allegedly committed infractions — in one case, against a student and, in another, a teacher.
During the same five-year timespan, the Winooski school officer responded to 1,482 general calls for service, 305 of which were for verbal and physical disturbances; the remainder were for unspecified juvenile problems, community outreach and events, assists to other agencies, and truancy. Those numbers have declined over the years, too: In 2019-2020, there were 153 calls for service.
The issue of on-campus policing has come up in school districts around the state. A program at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans has come under scrutiny after a local city cop arrested a student with a documented disability in March of 2019. The city recently settled the case with the student’s family for $30,000.
In Burlington, the school board voted in late June to continue funding two school resource officer positions for this school year. The board also narrowly voted down a resolution that officers not be armed or in uniform.