After a Year of Protests a Debate About the Place of Police in Connecticut’s Schools

Since last summer’s protests against police brutality, school districts in Connecticut have been debating whether to continue the use of school resource officers. 

Police officers say the benefits of the position include increased school safety and opportunities to form positive relationships within the community. However, some community members and officials argue that a police presence in the schools increases juvenile arrest rates and creates a military presence within the school system. 

“It doesn’t send the right message to have a police officer with a gun in school,” said Curtis Goodwin, a New London city councilman and chair of the town’s Economic Development Commission.

Goodwin is part of a recently-formed committee tasked with reviewing the role of the police in the city and offering recommendations for better use of the department’s resources. One of the recommendations was to remove school resource officers and replace them with an official police-youth liaison. The city has not had a school resource officer since last year. 

“They’re police — they are not people who should be giving discipline, nor should they ever have been,” said Winfield.

In New Haven, a committee formed by the Board of Education recently voted to keep its school resource officers, but with certain stipulations including modifying the officers’ uniforms and parking police cars off school grounds.

At the state level, Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, has proposed a bill that would remove all school resource officers because he said he believed police should not handle disciplinary issues in the schools.

“They’re police — they are not people who should be giving discipline, nor should they ever have been,” said Winfield.

“I would say that it is short-sighted and a knee-jerk reaction to certain stories that come out,” Buzzelli said. “If you are talking about building better relationships with the community, you clearly have to start with the youngest of the community.”

However, Joe Buzzelli, who became the school resource officer in New London at the end of the 2018 school year, said that he believed removing police officers from the schools was a mistake. 

“I would say that it is short-sighted and a knee-jerk reaction to certain stories that come out,” Buzzelli said. “If you are talking about building better relationships with the community, you clearly have to start with the youngest of the community.”

At least 70 school districts in Connecticut had school resource officers on staff in 2018, with the cost ranging from $17,500 to $200,000, according to a report from the Office of Legislative Research. In 41 of the 70 districts, the officers’ positions were funded through the local police department while 23 were paid for in the school district budget and five used a combination of the two.

Community policing

School resource officers in a number of districts said their work in the schools was critical to forming positive relationships with families and residents. 

“[Students] actually speak to these guys a lot, they look up to them. It’s kind of a nice way for them to be introduced to police at a younger age, ” said Sergeant Richard Sawyer, who supervises school resource officers in the Groton Police Department. 

Sawyer said he believes their presence decreases the number of juvenile arrests. If the students know the police officer personally, he said, it’s less likely that a disciplinary situation will blow out of proportion. 

“[Students] actually speak to these guys a lot, they look up to them. It’s kind of a nice way for them to be introduced to police at a younger age, ” said Sergeant Richard Sawyer, who supervises school resource officers in the Groton Police Department. 

Officers said they spend time in the hallways and the cafeteria, talking to students and getting to know them. 

“No one’s walking around swinging their gun. If they want to talk about whether this is necessary, ask the students. I think the students would agree,” said Officer Joe Race, a school resource officer in Madison. 

At times, the teachers ask the officers to teach in the classrooms. Buzzelli said that he taught forensics in a science class and constitutional law in a history course. After the school districts switched to remote learning, Sawyer said officers also teamed up with teachers to make home visits to students who were struggling. 

Race said that the police officers helped with toy and food drives. One officer put on bracelets every morning to go to work that were made by a student at the  elementary school.

“At one point he had like an armful,” remembered Race. “That was such a big thing for him, to show off that artwork.” 

Buzzelli said he has had several conversations with students at the high school who were interested in going to the police academy.

Clayton Potter, a member of the New London’s committee and a 2014 graduate of New London High School, said that he doesn’t remember the officers in the school forming relationships with the students, or trying to get them interested in law enforcement. Mostly, he said, they were there to break up fights and make arrests.

Potter, who now works at Connecticut College, said he was in full support of the committee’s decision to recommend removing resource officers from the school. 

“I think it’s an incredible connection for our students and officers,” he said. 

He added that while he personally didn’t have any negative interactions with the police, he remembered seeing a student placed in handcuffs twice during his time at the high school.

Craig Cook, superintendent of schools at Madison, on the other hand praised the program. 

“I think it’s an incredible connection for our students and officers,” he said. 

He said he believed teachers felt safer with officers on campus. He said he hadn’t heard of any complaints from parents in the 2 1/2 months he’d been at the school, and that no arrests had taken place during that time.  

Officers or social workers?

John DeCarlo, professor of Criminal Justice at the University of New Haven and former police chief in Branford, said that like other police, school resource officers were trained to react to situations through a stress model. DeCarlo said that if officers were going to be placed in the schools, they needed to be trained properly, a concern shared by Goodwin and Winfield. 

A 2013 Congressional Research Study found that schools with school resource officers may be more likely to report incidents like physical fights and threats to the police or to arrest students for low-level crimes. The study also noted that students in schools with resource officers were less likely to bring in weapons or commit assaults on school grounds.

Sawyer said that an officer could deescalate a situation by stepping between a child or a teacher, or helping to remove a disruptive child from a classroom. 

But both Race and Sawyer said that enforcement represented a very small part of their jobs. 

“If we need, we can pick up the phone and have a police officer there in 60 seconds,” he said. 

Race said that Madison Public Schools brought in school resource officers in December 2012, in direct response to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in which six adult staff members and 20 children were killed. 

He said he believes having an officer on staff can be critical in situations of potential violence. 

“Our schools are probably our most population-dense area on any given day,” said Race. “Time is absolutely of the essence in those situations.”  

DeCarlo questioned whether schools could use other security methods that would provide what he calls “capable guardianship,” a component that prevents a crime from taking place. 

“Is that an officer in the school or is that locks on the doors?” He asked. “Or is it a teacher empowered?”

Goodwin disagreed with the need for an officer on the premises. He said that New London is only five square miles and an officer could easily arrive at a school within minutes if something should happen. 

“If we need, we can pick up the phone and have a police officer there in 60 seconds,” he said. 

Defining the role

Some school boards and municipalities have considered replacing school resource officers with additional counselors or social workers. 

Goodwin said that he wanted to see a school resource “individual,” not necessarily a police officer, but perhaps a counselor who can perform some of the tasks assigned to the resource officer. 

However, Race said social workers at the schools often will not engage with a student until a resource officer has brought an escalating or dangerous situation under control. 

DeCarlo said that the efficacy of the resource officer program depends on how the school, the officer and the community view the officer’s role.

“A counselor and a police officer do very different things,” he said. “It’s up to the community to vote for what they want. Does one really equate to the other?” 

“A counselor and a police officer do very different things,” he said. “It’s up to the community to vote for what they want. Does one really equate to the other?” 

Winfield said that, regardless of whether resource officers are removed from the schools, an effort needs to be made to provide students with more counseling and emotional support services.  

New Haven is trying for the best of both worlds — its recommendations included increased funding to hire more school psychologists and social workers while also emphasizing the mentorship role of the school resource officers. 

DeCarlo said the decision to keep or end a school resource officer program should be based on empirical data. 

“If I were helping make the decision, I would not ever be using the word maybe,” he said. “Have we done research?”

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