Members of the Winooski School Board approved a motion on Tuesday that will allow the campus police officer to come to work carrying a gun, effectively reversing an earlier decision that called for him to be unarmed and out of uniform.
The 4-1 vote means Officer Jason Ziter will return to school on Thursday driving an unmarked car, with a firearm, and wearing a "soft" uniform of khaki pants and a Winooski police polo shirt.
In a press release on Wednesday, the school district explained that Ziter would be armed per "the Winooski Police Department’s General Order issued by the chief of police, which states the SRO is an active duty police officer while serving the school district."
Since school started on September 8, Ziter had been reporting to the Winooski Police Department — and not to campus — because the school board accepted student demands over the summer that he be unarmed. The city had held firm that Ziter must be armed at school to fulfill his duties as a Winooski police officer.
Until this week, the school board had asserted that he must be unarmed. They had even recommitted to the idea at a special September 6 meeting.
But at Tuesday's meeting, board member Mike Decarreau said the governing body should have done community outreach and consulted with the police department before accepting the Winooski Students for Anti-Racism's demands about the school resource officer.
Board member Margaret Bass expressed frustration that the board had not adhered to proper process in making their August 11 decision. “We did not do what we should have done as elected officials,” she said.
Bass added that it was unconscionable that the board had made the decision without consulting with Winooski Police Chief Rick Hebert. Bass also spoke of her appreciation for Officer Ziter.
“We are deeply indebted to him for his work, but he does not do his work because he wears a gun. He does the work because of his heart,” she said.
Winooski School District parent teacher organization president Sarah McGowan-Frieje told board members that she was glad they admitted to not following their own policies in failing to get community input about the demands. She suggested that all of the students’ demands should be revisited, following proper procedure, before implementation.
At the end of the meeting, the board voted to accept a motion that overturned its acceptance of the students’ demand concerning the officer. Board member Alex Yin was the sole no vote, and Bass characterized her yes vote as “fraught.”
Bass, who is Black, said that there was a good lesson for students to learn in the board’s messy process. “Racism doesn’t go away just because you make a demand,” she said. “These battles have been hard fought in this nation since before I was born until now.”
In the coming months, the school district said in its press release on Wednesday, the board plans to use a third-party facilitator to lead a public education and community engagement process to discuss “the future of safety and security at WSD, including the SRO position.” Members of the Winooski Students for Anti-Racism, city employees and school district employees would all be part of the process.
After the meeting, Winooski High School math teacher Luke Dorfman wrote in an email to Seven Days that "the default setting of 'status quo' ... continues to amplify certain voices over others, centering the interests of people with power and privilege over those of people who have been most disempowered and marginalized.”
The board, he wrote, "has now publicly stated its policies and procedures are racist.
“Well, if we are committed to being an anti-racist district, then we need to change those policies and procedures,” wrote Dorfman, an ally of the Winooski Students for Anti-Racism. “What is the district leadership’s roadmap to make this happen?”
Winooski High School alumni Indra Acharya, one of the organizers of the Winooski Students for Anti-Racism, said in a phone call on Wednesday evening that he viewed the board's decision as "a betrayal of trust," but he was not surprised by their actions.
He said it confirmed his "worst fear" — that the school board and school leadership team "are not truly ready for systemic change."
Clarification, September 17, 2020: This story has been updated to more fully detail Dorfman's statement.