In 2017, nearly 3 years ago, the Montpelier Police Department received a call from one of their school buildings about a fire alarm going off. Corporal Matthew Knisley, who was only a resource officer of 5 years at the time, was one of many to respond along with other officers and firemen.
He acted quickly to arrive at the scene as fast as he could, unaware of what type of situation he would encounter. Upon arriving at the scene, Knisley found students gathering outside with firemen ready to check through the building. The firemen discovered that someone had purposefully pulled the fire alarm.
The time for investigating had arrived. After 2 weeks of pulling and logging videos, conducting interviews with the teachers, and the paperwork of collected statements from witnesses, they finally figured out who the culprits were. They came to the conclusion that 2 students pulled the alarm who didn’t even go to the school.
Knisley had previously known these students through his role as a resource officer and tried to contact each student’s family. One of the parents came and met with Knisley with the student. Unfortunately, the other student had an uncooperative family that didn’t try to respond or reach out to help their child. Knisley had to track them down and bring them in. He told them a false public alarm could at their age be charged as a juvenile offense.
Under Vermont law 13 V.S.A. § 1753 False public alarm, for the first offense, punishment can include being imprisoned for not more than two years or fined not more than $5,000.00, or both. For the second or subsequent offense, the person shall be imprisoned for not more than five years or fined not more than $10,000.00, or both. In addition, the court may order the person to perform community service. For a juvenile, the punishment isn’t so severe. As it could result in community service.
Knisley said, when it comes to minors, he really likes to focus on restorative justice. “I think there’s a lot for that student to learn, a lot for them to restore as far as their relationship with the community,” he said. “And that’s the hope. That we can go in that direction.”
Restorative justice is the practice of giving the suspect the right to learn from the situation and to move on from it. It gives them the power to make their community a safer place to live. One of the benefits of restorative justice is that it reduces recidivism, but its cost-effectiveness is what saves the state’s money by solving the problem on a community level instead of a state level. Lastly, it builds a stronger community. Volunteering increases cohesion within a community. Sadly, for some delinquents, it only works with parental involvement.
Knisley wanted to use the Restorative Program with the assailants. The first student came from a well off, supportive family and they were very cooperative in focusing on resolving the situation. They were able to access the resources they needed to fix their situation and repair that relationship that was broken by falsely pulling the alarm. This student received community service and had to go to the community to apologize. By using the program, they were able to learn from her mistakes.
The second student came from lesser economic means whose parent was also involved in the system. The parent wouldn’t engage and was already in the system and offered no support to the teen. Knisley knew this person would not qualify for the program. “For me, it quickly became a question of what really is fair in this situation.”
When deciding the student’s fate, Knisley’s morals fought against each other. He had grown up with a strong family, going to church, and he struggled with the decision. This gave him “a moral kind of guideline of life… a framework of like what seems right and wrong and what seems fair.”
He also understood what it was like to make mistakes at their age. He once skipped a day of school and his parents made him meet with each individual teacher and apologize for wasting their time, and thank them for what they did. “It was embarrassing but a valuable life lesson,” he said. Unlike the second student, his parents always made sure that he realized the consequences of his actions, how they affected others and even how they affected his own life and opportunities.
So he had some conversations with the state’s attorney and ultimately did not charge the second student. “It really is a question of if I were in that student’s shoes,” Knisley said. “Would I feel fairly treated by the situation if it was really outside of my control? Even though that student made the decision to commit the crime, you know seeing a different outcome just based on your family’s ability to help you get through a situation.” Knisley decided to have conversations with the second student to help change his life and try to make him a better person in the community but that was as far as punishment went. “It left me with the question of now do I charge this kid and send them to court,” he said, “because their family doesn’t engage with the process?”
The first student has made an effort to become a better person, they have not gotten into any more trouble. There are no ill feelings and they are actually quite successful.
Although this case seems very minor and Knisley has been a part of the justice system for almost 20 years, it still makes him think about the equity within schools and the justice system.
As for student two, they are still struggling and have continued to get into trouble. Even though this could have been predicted, Knisley couldn’t have known for sure.
“I feel for them,” he said, “it is a tough situation and the family is still really struggling.”
Should there be an alternate system in place for children who do not have adequate family support or those that have parents in the system?
Because the student had no parental support, Knisley had the choice to either send the student to court or to let him go. He decided to let him go. Was he right to so?
Would the system implement better results if mentors were involved instead of parental support?