MIDDLETOWN — On Tuesday night, current students and recent graduates of Middletown High School voiced support for ending a program that places police officers in district schools. The public comment was part of a meeting of the Middletown School Resource Officer Exploratory Committee, which was formed in March to evaluate the role of officers in Middletown schools. The committee will advise the Board of Education on how to address the issue moving forward.
The committee includes two board of education members, three school principals, two teachers, a social and emotional learning coordinator, four community members, three students, the youth service coordinator, and a sergeant in the Middletown Police Department.
Many of the young people who spoke said that they felt that individuals other than police officers would be better equipped to handle situations that could arise in schools, particularly concerning mental health. They suggested that resources should be directed toward the nurses office, the school-based health center, or hiring social workers.
Christopher Naylor, a student at the high school, said that it took three months to secure an appointment at the school health center. That was before COVID.
“I think on an emotional, personal level, a lot of people need help that aren’t able to reach out, don’t know where to reach out,” he said. “And so I think giving them more opportunities to … [would be] honestly more beneficial than having armed police officers in the hallways.”
Evan Davis, who graduated from the high school in 2020, said that the officers should have more training in adolescent brain development, racial equity, mental illness and trauma-informed practices. He said he believed that resources should go toward making sure students have their basic needs met, such as food, housing and water.
Several said that as students they had had no personal relationships with the SROs during their time at the high school. Sebastian Nazario-Colon, a 2020 graduate of Middletown High School, said that he didn’t remember seeing SROs go out of their way to build relationships with the students, and he doesn’t remember them acting as mentors.
Nazario-Colon and other former and current students said that some students didn’t feel comfortable having police officers in the schools.
“Seeing a police with a loaded gun on their hip come into school every day makes a lot of people feel uneasy,” said Quinn Kessel, a current student at the high school.
“Not cops from wherever”
Middletown began using school resource officers in 2000, and currently has six officers placed in schools. The officers are funded through the Middletown Police Department at an annual cost to the town of about $500,000, police Sgt. William Porter estimated in an earlier meeting.
At a meeting in early May, officers shared with committee members their own experiences.
Eric Sanford, the resource officer at Woodrow Wilson Middle School, said that the officers who work in the schools were not assigned randomly. He said he had spent years working with young people in mentoring programs, as a former substitute teacher and as a member of the Juvenile Review Board.
Porter and others said they had all received training in equity and bias as well as in adolescent brain development.
“We’re not just cops who come in from wherever and just kind of get stuck in the schools,” said Sanford.
Sanford and Officer Larry Willard, the resource officer at Middletown High School, said that their day-to-day work includes greeting the children as they get off the bus, checking in with administrators and guidance counselors, participating in history or forensics classes and playing sports with the teens.
“We do have a great rapport with all the students,” said Willard.
Willard said his work includes efforts to prevent fights between students, and help school social workers and administrators deal with issues of mental health. Willard said that officers also help in cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Sanford told the committee that officers spend a lot of time hanging around the hallways, getting to know the students.
“You get to learn a lot about the kids in the school just from them being in the hallway — passing through, hearing what they are talking about, just seeing what they are up to,” he said.
Sanford said that arresting students is the absolute last resort for officers.
“Everyone here says they do not want to see students involved in the court system — neither do we,” he said. “That is the last, last option.”
Educators weigh in
Earlier at a May 25 meeting, principals and teachers offered their perspectives on officers’ interactions in the schools.
According to Jennifer Cannata, principal of Van Buren Moody Elementary School, all eight elementary school principals in the district saw the officers as a positive force in the schools. She explained that officers help with safety drills, directing traffic and processing custodial or court paperwork, as well as just being part of the school community. In emergencies, she said, they act as a familiar face. She said that officers also conduct wellness checks, and check on absent students whose parents say that the child went to school.
“The SROs have become a familiar face to parents, students and the staff,” she said. “They are really just considered a part of our school communities.”
Cannata said that while it wasn’t necessary for someone to be a police officer in order to act as a mentor, having an officer at the school was a huge help in other instances, like when a homeless man was living on the school grounds or when an unknown vehicle showed up on the property.
Roberta Downer, who has taught at Middletown High School for 21 years, said that the students feel very comfortable talking with the resource officers.
“You see the ease with which the kids interact with them,” she said. “[The students] often times bring concerns to them.”
Cheryl Gonzalez, the principal at Woodrow Wilson Middle School, described in an earlier meeting a situation in which a student asked Sanford to come into the cafeteria during lunchtime “just to make his day better.”
“It’s actually a very nice, strong working relationship,” she said.
The role of officers
Not all of the young people who spoke Tuesday night were against having officers in the schools. Lily Doan, a 2019 graduate, said that while she believed there should be more resources directed toward mental health, she also thought that having student resource officers could “help relieve some of the tensions around policing in general.”
Alana Boirie, a current student, said that she knew of students who had been positively affected by the officers.
“On an everyday basis, they really do benefit the kids,” she said. “It is important for students to have allies in the police force.
Boirie said that she knew someone living in an abusive situation, who feared talking to faculty members who might be forced to report the incident. Boirie said the student spoke to a resource officer, and was able to get herself out of the situation.
“I think a lot of voices that need to be heard are the voices that are interacting with these policemen and actually seeking out help,” she said.
A few others from the community also voiced support for the officers.
Joanne Thrasher, whose great-grandson is a kindergartner at Wesley, said that employing resource officers in the schools gives students the opportunity to feel comfortable around police officers.
“It really teaches the kids not to be afraid of them,” she said.
According to former Middletown Mayor Sebastian Giuliano, who spoke during public comment on Tuesday, the town tried to drop the program a decade ago, but soon asked that the officers return.
Giuliano said that the officers were a service that the city provided to the schools, and that if the board decided to ask for their removal, the officers would just be given other duties in the town.
“It’s not like they get laid off. It wouldn’t take long for them to find other things for them to do,” said Giuliano.
Giuliano said that the discussion really needing to happen centered on the purpose of officers in the schools, and whether it lined up with the expectations of the administration, teachers and students.
“What role should they play? Is there a role they can play or is what is being asked of them not possible?” he said. “I would be fine with either decision as long as it’s a rational one.”