Brian Difranco spent his high school days hanging out with police officers at the Livingston County Jail, where his grandmother worked as a cook in the kitchen.
“It was fun. It was usually lively,” he said. “My grandma was an old Italian woman. They’d try to steal her meatballs and she’d throw pots and pans at them.”
The camaraderie of the officers, along with his family’s legacy of public service, lured Difranco into the field of law enforcement. He now is the School Resource Officer at Burlington High School, through the local police department.
Difranco grew up in the small town of Livonia, New York, half an hour south of Rochester. After deciding to pursue a career as a police officer, he began his schooling at Finger Lakes Community College, and received a bachelor’s in Criminal Justice with a minor in sociology from Plattsburgh State University.
He met his wife while in Plattsburg and worked odd security jobs after graduating. Difranco moved down to Raleigh, North Carolina and entered their police academy, conducted a 26 week training program, and an additional 20 weeks of field training. He worked for the Raleigh Police Department for three years before the charm and climate of the northeast drew him back to the Lake Champlain region.
“It’s too hot down there. We don’t like the heat,” Difranco said.
He also had kids at the time and wanted to raise them in the north. With his sights set on relocating to the Queen City, the Burlington Police Department was the only application he put in.
He was accepted, and began his work as a Burlington officer on Sept. 10, 2001, the day before the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.
“It was a pretty dramatic change in policing, and in our country,” Difranco said. “It was a weird time to start a change.”
The opportunity to work at Burlington High School arose when Dave Scibek, the former school resource officer, injured his knee. Scibek currently teaches the criminal justice program offered at the Burlington Technical Center. Difranco filled in for him for a month. He liked working with the kids, and the department sent him to training for the position.
School resources officers, or a law enforcement liaisons, are common at schools through Vermont and the United States.
After two years in the middle schools, Difranco has been a friendly presence in the high school’s halls for the last decade. He has worked with the Burlington Police Department for 15 years.
Difranco started Tuesday morning at his locker at department headquarters, attended a roll call meeting and answered 911 calls, all before starting the school day.
In the middle of his interview he took a call about a student that had run away from home.
On a typical day he offers counseling for students with domestic violence at home, and those who are experiencing bullying or suicidal thoughts. Lockdown drills and safety planning are another aspect of the job.
“They get the same face every time,” Difranco said. They’re not getting different officers, and that often makes them more comfortable speaking to me.”
Lockdown drills and safety planning are another aspect of the job. He will also head to the elementary schools to develop a community relationship with law enforcement, handing out stickers, and letting kids have fun with the sirens on his car. He loves seeing the potential and growth of the students he works with, and hearing their stories.
“My main job as a school officer is to build relationships, so if there’s a problem and someone needs help, they’re not afraid to talk to me.”
When school vacation takes place, Difranco goes back to normal police work for the department. This summer he’ll be posted in the downtown area, and teaching at the Burlington Police Academy.
He works closely with teacher and administrators, and is involved in the development of restorative justice practices.
“We don’t want to give kids criminal records. We want to give them better choices for their future when they face these situations,” Difranco said.
His valuable role became threatened when the school board cut funding for school resource officers a few years ago. The school district and police department had split the cost of having two officers—one at the middle schools and one at BHS—for more than 12 years.
“There are some people on the school board who don’t believe we should have a uniformed officer in the schools because they’re afraid that we’re scary and will arrest everybody,” Difranco said. “We have arrested kids in school for various situations, but it is very, very rare.”
Chief Mike Schirling saw the program as beneficial, and decided to step in and provide the funding. New police chief Brandon Del Pozo is highly supportive of the program.
Difranco believes the fearful perception of police officers around the nation has increased. The work he and his department do with the community strive to mitigate that.
“Even the teachers who are apprehensive about police, once they get to know us personally, it puts a different light on what we do,” he said. “It allows us to talk about the taboo subjects of use of force and racial profiling, and puts a face that you can talk to.”