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Midd. schools see a changing of the guard

MIDDLEBURY — For more than a decade, police officer Scott Fisher has walked the beat in Middlebury schools, maintaining the peace while dispensing wisdom, mediation and some kind words along the way.
Any doubts he might have about the impact he has had on the youths he serves tend to melt away every graduation day at Middlebury Union High School.
“I get some (graduating seniors) who say, ‘I wouldn’t have made it if you hadn’t kept after me,’” Fisher recalled, with a smile. “I have been told that on several occasions.”
Well, it’s now time for Fisher to graduate from the position of Middlebury School Resource Officer, or SRO. In January he will be rotating back to the Middlebury policed headquarters to tend to some projects in anticipation of his retirement in 2013. 
Fisher will be succeeded on the local schools beat by Officer Chris Mason, who hails from Great Britain and has a varied background. He is expected to slip into the SRO role quite seamlessly. Fisher is showing Mason the ropes before ceding a post he has thoroughly enjoyed.
“It’s been great,” Fisher said of the SRO job. “What I will miss the most is the kids, the hollers across the cafeteria and the teachers. You form bonds in this job and you get to know people. You develop relationships.”
Fisher began developing those relationships when Middlebury schools were made part of his beat after police Chief Tom Hanley established a “community policing” system to cover the town. The schools became Fisher’s exclusive coverage area when the town of Middlebury and its school district agreed to establish the SRO position nine years ago.
All of a sudden, Fisher was essentially the chief of his own department — with, of course, backup from his Middlebury police colleagues. But Fisher has had virtual law enforcement autonomy over arguably the most populous neighborhood in Middlebury.
“In (MUHS) you have a concentrated audience of more than 600 people in one place,” Fisher said. “I don’t think there is any more widely used facility in the community.”
Fisher also provides primary coverage to Middlebury Union Middle School and Mary Hogan Elementary School. His duties have included locating truant students, defusing fights and arguments, investigating alleged crimes, educating students in the classroom about law enforcement issues and helping school administrators mediate and resolve conflicts between students.
As a result of his varied duties, Fisher has ended up knowing virtually all the students by name. This has built trust, familiarity and a climate in which students have sometimes provided Fisher with information to pre-empt some crimes.
“They seek (Officer Fisher) out before there’s trouble or if they think there’s going to be trouble,” said MUHS Principal Bill Lawson, noting some of the disputes seep in to the school from individual homes or neighborhoods.
Fisher has made a point of being visible in the halls, gyms and classrooms at the schools.
“If you were secluded in the office all the time, you wouldn’t have the impact,” Fisher said.
Lawson said Fisher has made a big impact on the school during the past decade.
“I have worked with Scott for a long time; certainly, on a personal basis, I am going to miss him,” Lawson said. “He has certainly done a great job during the time he has been here with us and it has been a great relationship.”
NEW COP ON THE BEAT
Meanwhile, Mason is preparing for what he hopes will be a lengthy, productive law enforcement tenure in Middlebury schools. The Brighton, England, native joined the Middlebury force in 2009, after having attended the Vermont Police Academy.
“What drew me to policing was the desire to be part of a community,” Mason said. “I wanted to exercise a positive influence on the community. And I believed working in the school system would be one of the most effective ways to do that.”
Mason studied philosophy in college and has taken several career detours, spanning many miles, on his road to law enforcement. Prior to arriving in Middlebury, Mason worked as an artist residing in an “intentional community” in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The intentional community, in the spirit of a commune, was an association of families living together observing the principles of mutual respect — though without observing a central ethos or doctrine.
Prior to living in Virginia, Mason and his wife, Jennifer Molineaux, lived in California, where she was earning a master’s degree in feminist theology. While there, Mason was based in a school working with children with disabilities. His resume also includes stints as a carpenter and auction house worker.
“When the economy collapsed in 2008, it made being an artist economically unviable,” Mason said.
The family had some friends living in Middlebury. They steered Mason to some employment options in the area. And the Middlebury Police Department happened to be looking for help at the time. He signed up, got hired, and has been working the night shift for a while.
“It has been extremely rewarding being a police officer in Middlebury,” said Mason, whose British accent has proved to be a conversation starter during encounters with citizens with whom he interacts from days to day.
“It can break the ice at a traffic stop,” he said with a smile.
Lawson is confident Mason has the makeup it will take to be successful as the new SRO.
“I am really looking forward to working with Chris and getting to know Chris,” Lawson said “I have heard very positive things about him from people around town. I think there is going to be a high degree of confidence that the continuity that was present with Scott is going to stay in place. I think the community as a whole feels good about the whole thing.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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