HARTFORD – A bill aiming to replace the duties of school resources officers, many who are armed police, with staff trained in behavioral health was met with enthusiastic support at a public hearing on Wednesday, even as school counselors and social workers questioned whether taking on a more disciplinary role would undermine their trust with students.
Advocates who spoke in favor of the bill said they wanted to eliminate a “school-to-prison pipeline” that they say harms Black and Brown students in particular, and shift the funding for school resource officers to mental health workers.
State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, the bill’s author, told CT Examiner that the bill was not intended to have mental health professionals arrest students or carry a gun. But he said that if SROs are doing work in the schools that is not specific to policing, other school personnel could be trained to do the same thing.
“What we have been told over and over again is that [SROs] are not there to be police officers per se, because they offer all kinds of assistance to the school, and they do all kinds of programming and on and on and on and on and on,” said Winfield.
But counselors offering testimony at the hearing said the bill lacked clarity regarding what “duties” they would be asked to take on.
“No reasonable parent of school-aged children would ever support or expect that a school counselor would be ordered, as part of their job duties, to arrest their child,” wrote Jeremiah Berard, a school counselor at Norwich Free Academy.
Winfield said those “duties” could vary depending on the school. He also said that behavioral health specialists could be trained to intervene in situations that needed de-escalation.
“Whatever that is, let’s figure out how to train for it and get people who don’t wear a uniform and a gun to do that work, potentially,” he said.
Dr. Tagrid Mikaiel, a school counselor at Kennedy High School in Waterbury, testified that the school resource officer at her school responded to physical violence against teachers, confiscating drugs and weapons, and intervening in domestic violence incidents between students, for example, when a male student tried to choke the pregnant female student.
“SROs are in school buildings to maintain order, are armed, and carry other means of restraint,” said Eileen Melody, a counselor at Mansfield Middle School. “I do not have training in these areas, and I do not see that these roles can be intertwined without forfeiting my primary objective as a school counselor, advocating for my students.”
Counselors opposed to the bill were a small fraction of the people who submitted testimony or spoke at a public hearing on Wednesday. About 260 of the 300 written public comments supported the measure, and many of those who spoke in favor of the bill, including parents, students and advocates,testified about their experiences attending schools where they felt scrutinized or poorly treated by officers and security guards.
Student Amir Thomas said that while his school does not employ a School Resource Officer, the security guards had “manhandled” students of color, and that these students had been subjected to in and out of school suspensions. He told legislators that having officers in school caused anxiety among students, and that the guards’ presence failed to stop fights from happening.
“In my experience they do not prevent fights, but just force students to get creative about where they are fighting, which usually extends into the community, which then creates a ripple effect that follows into their homes, social media and beyond,” said Thomas.
Asia Hamilton, a student in the Hartford Public Schools, said that her school had increased the number of security guards and added metals detectors and bag searches. She said that banned items had gotten past the guards even with the searches, and that the searches often made the students late for class.
“I remember breaking down one morning because I was at school on time and due to the search had to stay outside in the cold for another hour, making me late for classes. I felt like an intruder in a place I was supposed to be safe in, in a place I was supposed to feel welcomed,” Hamilton testified.
Hamilton said she felt the school counselors would be better equipped to intervene in fights in schools because they had already built relationships with the students.
“Given that they are in the building with us every single day, possibly interacting with us as the day progresses, I do feel as though as altercations do occur, they would be better able to emotionally assist us,” said Hamiton.
Others who testified in support of the bill included representatives for CT Voices for Children, Connecticut Justice Alliance, Hearing Youth Voices and CT Students for a Dream.
Angelica Idrovo, co-executive director of CT Students for a Dream, an organization that advocates for young immigrants without legal residency, said that having police officers in the schools could be particularly risky for undocumented students if they were arrested in school.
“Undocumented students, after being arrested, could have their case be escalated and put in danger of being referred to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] or face deportation,” said Idrovo.
“Part of a team”
Police officers and counselors who testified that SROs held a unique role in the public schools that couldn’t be replaced simply by transferring their duties onto another person. And even some legislators said that the Student Resource Officer program had positive results in some schools.
L.J. Lusaro, Chief of Police in Groton and a member of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, told legislators that school resources officers have a role that is completely different than that of behavioral health professionals. He said that the officers have valuable roles in the community, and that they were often able to divert students from being arrested.
But he also said that he would not be opposed to having mental health professionals step in to help in situations that needed to be de-escalated.
“Many times there are people within the school environment that have a better way to handle things than they do as police officers,” said Lusaro. “We’re all in this about what’s best in the learning environment and being part of that team.”
Some of the counselors said they felt their work was complementary to that of Student Resource Officers. They said the officers did things like as a resource for legal matters and accompanied mental health professionals on home visits.
Others warned that putting the additional duties on them would compound their already overloaded schedules.
“There are days that I do not drink water or eat lunch because I am consumed from the minute I walk in the door through the minute I leave, often at least an hour past my contractual obligation,” wrote Kiley Flinn, a school counselor at Griswold High School. “Adding more workload to School Counselors in CT shows that lack of consideration to the overflowing plates that we already manage.”
State Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, said that while he believed SRO programs did work well in some districts, he also heard stories like the one that child advocate Sarah Egan shared in her testimony. According to a study of the Waterbury Public Schools done by the Office of the Child Advocate during the 2018-19 school year, the district called the police on students over 200 times during a six-month period. 36 children were arrested as a result, including nine children under the age of 12.
“OCA found that children as young as 7, 8, and 9 years old were subject to a police response after exhibiting dysregulated and suicidal or self-harming behavior, with some children even handcuffed during these encounters,” the testimony read. “None of the schools had a dedicated social worker or counselor in the building.”
McCrory said he believed there needed to be a way to make sure that everyone had a positive experience with the SROs in their schools.
“I think we need something in place to make sure we have consistency across school districts,” said McCrory.