MIDDLETOWN — An exploratory committee tasked with evaluating the Student Resource Officer Program in Middletown Public Schools voted 11-2 to keep the current program, but to update the memorandum of understanding between the police department and the district. The current document would be revised to include specific policies related to hiring, removal, training and chain of command structure.
The committee was created in March to solicit perspectives from parents, officers, educators and students and to return recommendations to the town’s board of education. The committee includes two members of the board of education, 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. Not all members were present at Wednesday’s meeting.
Middletown’s Student Resource Officer program has existed since at least the year 2000. There are currently six officers in the schools: two at Middletown High School, one at Woodrow Wilson Middle School, and three others who are split between the nine elementary schools. The current memorandum of understanding has not been updated since 2014.
The committee also voted to update the reporting practices concerning data and to expand required officers training to include youth-centered training in child development, trauma-informed practices, students with disabilities and mental health challenges, implicit bias and anti-racism.
Members were divided on other proposals, voting 6-6 to recommend limiting the scope of the program and allowing parents to “opt-in” their children, and voting 6-6 to recommend further research, such as parent surveys and student focus groups.
The committee voted against removing officers from the elementary schools and eliminating the program entirely. They also voted unanimously against keeping the program as it currently is.
The committee will present their recommendations to the Board of Education for consideration.
“An Illusion of Increased School Safety”
Dr. Lisa Loomis, a Board of Education member and chair of the committee, said that the research that she’d seen led her to believe that school resource officers did not make students safer during school shootings, and she said that many districts were functioning without resource officers.
“SROs create an illusion of increased school safety while contributing to an environment of fear for students,” said Loomis.
She said she believed that school psychologists and social workers were better equipped to build positive, supportive relationships with students.
“By all accounts that we’ve heard, the SROs we currently have in the schools are great people,” she said. “But my concerns do lie not with the people right now but with the system that we have in place.
Diana Martinez, a community member and parent who voted to eliminate the SROs, said she was concerned that there were no metrics to show whether the program was or was not working. She also said she thought parents should be informed about what an interaction with the police, such as an arrest, could potentially look like.
Martinez said she felt the parents should have the right to opt out from having their children participate in officer-led programs like DARE, and from having any interactions with the officers.
“I would like the option to opt out, as a parent of color, of interactions with the officers,” she said.
“It’s my right to keep my kids safe the way I feel they should be kept safe.”
She also said that young people of color are arrested, disciplined and expelled at disproportionate rates. She said young people who spoke to the committee had made clear that school resource officers weren’t providing them what they needed.
“Every young person who spoke to us said ‘Hey, here’s what I need to be safe, and here’s what y’all are doing’ and those things don’t match,” said Martinez.
“The dedication and the professionalism”
In a public comment session in June, current students and recent graduates from Middletown High School asked that officers be removed from the schools. They asked instead that resources be directed toward hiring more social workers and shoring up the school-based health centers. Some said that students didn’t feel comfortable having officers in the schools. Others suggested that officers receive further training in adolescent brain development, trauma, mental illness and racial equity.
Over 20 community members, parents, and educators — including a social worker and the head of school counseling — sent emails to the committee asking to keep the school resource officers. The emails cited positive relationships between the children and the officers and said that the officers improved safety in the schools.
At the start of the meeting, Middletown Acting Chief of Police Michael Timbro told the committee that he, too, had been receiving “countless text messages” from parents who were concerned about having the officers removed. He said the police had learned about “serious crimes” that took place against children because the children felt comfortable confiding in the officers.
“The SROs are invaluable to us for building relationships with our youth in the city,” he said.
Sergeant William Porter, the principals at three of the districts’ schools and a chemistry teacher at Middletown High School also spoke in favor of keeping the officers.
Cheryl Gonzalez, principal at Woodrow Wilson Middle School, said she thought it was “crucial” to continue the program. She also pointed out that removing school resource officers didn’t mean the district would be able to replace them with mental health professionals, as some individuals had suggested, because the officers are paid out of the police department’s budget.
Roger Hart, a community member and former police officer, said he was initially unsure whether to continue the program, but that after hearing the officers speak, he decided the program should remain.
“When I heard the dedication and the professionalism that is currently being done by our current SROs, when I heard the degree of supervision that is being currently used … I was extremely impressed,” he said.
“Communities are not zero-sum games”
Two other members, Molly Anger and Youth Services Director Justin Carbonella, said they were in favor of completely revamping the program and creating something “unique” to Middletown. Anger said she wanted to conduct additional research, and she said they hadn’t heard enough perspectives from current students.
Carbonella said he wanted to see a different type of training for police, one that is less centered on policing and more focused on understanding trauma and youth development.
“I think that we have to do this under a youth-centered model,” he said. “I think we do operate in an understanding of young people that is devoid, often, of science and understanding of behaviour and effectively understanding how to change it.”
Nearly all the committee members said that the schools needed more mental health professionals on staff, regardless of whether the officers remained. Several brought up testimony from the public comment session, in which one student said he waited three months to get an appointment at the school health center.
Carbonella also made the point that officers are only one facet in a much larger conversation of how to make schools safe and create safe spaces. He said that framing the conversation as a choice between keeping the officers or removing them was missing the “full, nuanced breadth” of the discussion, which could include creating a program that was unique to Middletown.
At the same time, Carbonella acknowledged the limitations of what they were able to achieve. He said that they needed to explore further, and to make sure the solutions that are adopted take into account the perspectives and feelings of everyone.
“We know for certain that this program can’t be all things to all people,” he said. “When we say things like, ‘Well, some students don’t have good relationships’ or ‘Maybe some students don’t feel safe’ — We can’t underestimate that, and we can’t undervalue that,”
“School is a community, and communities are not zero-sum games,” he added. “I think we have to be more cognizant and show more humility than I think we have shown in this process.”
The original version of this story misstated the name of Woodrow Wilson Principal Cheryl Gonzalez