(Copyright 1999. All rights reserved.)

The Tattoo

--- Making a Permanent Impression Since 1994 ---

February 15, 1999


Eastern students take aim at cop's gun
By JOE WILBUR
The Tattoo

A group of Bristol Eastern High School's top
students are setting their sights on disarming
the school's new pistol-packing police officer.

Though most teachers and administrators seems
supportive of Officer Gary Vincent -- and his
Glock 17 9-mm gun -- some students say the
weapon isn't welcome.

"The fact that there's a police officer walking
the halls with a gun makes me feel unsafe,"
said Jessica Zarrella, a senior at Eastern.

In the wake of a heated meeting with
administrators over the gun recently, some
students from Zarrella's advanced placement
U.S. government class say they may survey
students about the matter.

Senior Jessica Mikes, who is working on the
survey, said she thinks having a cop at Eastern
with a gun is "a bad idea."

"It's not as though our school is violent enough
to require a gun," said Mikes. "It's unnecessary.
He doesn't need it. It's a bad message, the
gun."

Vincent, a former DARE officer, regards his
firearm as part of his uniform.

"Studies have shown that without the full
uniform, you don't command the same
authority," said Vincent. "The gun is part of
my uniform and without it I don't have the
same authority. You have to keep that. When
you lose that authority, that respect, that's when
things go wrong."

Zarrella disagreed.

"It's the image that he projects by carrying the
gun," Zarrella said. "It's very negative. He's
establishing authority through fear, rather than
through respect."

Early this year, Vincent began spending his
Fridays at Eastern, doing what he calls
"community policing."

"My goal is to prevent juvenile crime before it
happens," said Vincent, "by being a friend, role
model, problem solver, mediator and
informational resource."

Some students think Vincent is entitled to his
gun.

"It's not like he's here for target practice," said
Mike Santoro, senior class president. "It's not
really a threat to anyone. If a situation arose,
he may need his gun."

Senior Nick Sibly said the gun "shouldn't be an
issue."

"It's part of his uniform, like his belt or badge,"
said Sibly. "It's good to know that, if a cop is
needed for some reason, he is there."

Others fear that an officer with a gun could
signal stricter security measures.

"It may be good for the school to have a police
officer here, keeping an eye out," said Heather
St. Onge, a sophomore, "but the next step
could be a metal detector."

Staff and administration insist that it's not
Vincent's position to patrol or to draw his
weapon, and that he won't unless his life -- or
someone else's -- is threatened.

"We've had fully uniformed officers in and out
of the schools all through my career," said
Principal V. Everett Lyons, "and it's never been
a problem. I don't have any real problem with
it, or see it as a threat. I do, however, see
where [students] would be uncomfortable, and I
can respect that."

Beryl Josephson, social studies department
head for the city's two high schools, suggested
a possible solution.

"I feel it would be nice if he could conceal the
weapon," Josephson said. "Some people are
afraid, or their anxiety level has been risen. It
could be a nice compromise to conceal it."

It was in Josephson's government class that
students first objected to the gun.

A recent meeting between Lyons, Carolyn
Cistulli, Vincent and protesting students failed
to satisfy the group. Cistulli is the district's
$90,983-a-year director of instruction and
professional development.

Zarrella said she thought Cistulli "patronized"
the students.

"She accused us of being childish and said that
we were 'wasting her time.' I don't think she
took us seriously," Zarrella said. "We just feel
that he could do his job in a blazer and tie, or
without the gun."

Cistulli declined comment on the meeting's
specifics, saying only that the students are
"good kids who were concerned."

During the meeting, Zarrell said, Vincent
contended that the gun is essential to his
position, saying that without it he wouldn't
want the job."

"I don't think that we resolved anything," said
Lyons, "and it's really an issue on which there's
very little middle ground. We do want to keep
the dialogue open, though."

A second meeting was cancelled without
explanation.

Vincent keeps office hours at Eastern from
10:45 a.m. to about 2 p.m. on Fridays. He said
a big part of his job is speaking to students
about the law, careers in police work and the
dangers of drugs and alcohol.

"I enjoy working with young adults and I was
given a gift for communicating with young
people. I really feel like I'm accomplishing
more doing this than handling complaints or
something."

According to Vincent, Police Chief John
DiVenere picked him from a handful of
volunteers for the position. Lyons and
Superintendent Ann Clark also had to approve
the post, Vincent said.

"It's really a sort of community service
project," said Lyons. "Essentially, he's here to
provide students with a positive view of law
enforcement."

Across town, Officer Tim Ustanowski works at
Central High School in a similar capacity. He
and Vincent also spend time at the city's
middle schools.

"I think it's a great idea," said Larry Hochman,
head of Eastern's guidance department. "Some
kids feel more comfortable, in certain
situations, talking to an authority figure. He's a
resource for the students, by choice, and it's
worked terrifically so far."

Vincent said the aim is to bridge the gap
between students and the police.

"Students have to understand that I want to be
their friend first," stressed Vincent, "but I'm
also an authority figure that can help them
should they need it. I am a policeman and I do
have the full power of arrest. The gun is for
their protection."

Photo of Officer Gary Vincent provided by the Bristol Police Department.


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