Police, schools seek stronger relationships

Every Friday, officer Robert Clark roams the hallways of Hill Central School, stopping every once in a while to talk to students during recess or stick his head into one of the classrooms of the pre-K through eighth-grade institution at 140 Dewitt St.

Clark is one of 10 New Haven Police Department officers who make weekly one or two-hour visits to 30 grade schools throughout the Elm City. As an active participant in the NHPD’s recent outreach program — launched early last December to strengthen ties between the department and local elementary schools — Clark said the initiative is a “generational investment” that will forge new relationships between the department and Elm City residents.

“There’s so much negative perception [of police officers]. That’s where the fear comes from,” Clark said. “My job here is to mold these kids not to be afraid of police officers, but to develop positive bonds with them.”

But this renewed effort to reach out to elementary school students has not been contained within New Haven: In light of the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, neighboring cities, including North Branford, Milford and Orange, have started to implement similar programs in their own districts.

In North Branford, a town with roughly 2,000 students, the Board of Education has recently hired six armed security guards to patrol the four local schools — a unanimously approved plan that will cost the city around $137,000, according to Superintendent of Schools Scott Schoonmaker. Milford has followed suit: At a Feb. 4 Board of Alderman meeting, Milford Police Department Chief Keith Mello called for five school resource officers — full-time cops trained to work with students — to be placed in some of the city’s 14 public schools. Unlike the six guards that will be deployed in North Branford and trained by the North Branford Police Department, the school resource officers in Milford will be fully sworn police officers and will fall under the jurisdiction of Milford’s police department.

“We want to make sure schools are productive and comfortable work environments,” Mello said at the meeting.

The Milford Police Department has also partnered up with school officials and fire marshals to assess infrastructure and security measures in local schools, according to a Jan. 31 letter sent by Mayor Benjamin Blake and Superintendent of Schools Elizabeth Feser to parents of Milford students. The group has been meeting weekly to update the District Crisis Manual, a security plan that was created 13 years ago after the 1999 school shooting in Columbine, Colo., and last reviewed in 2009.

In addition, the Board of Finance in Orange, Conn., has recently approved a $150,000 measure to increase the number of security officers at its four schools, according to Orange Superintendent of Schools Lynn McMullin. The city will also install a variety of safety tools, such as a new lockset on classroom doors, updated camera systems to monitor hallways and other common areas and identification card readers to access locked entryway doors.

While cities across the state have just started placing armed guards in their schools, New Haven has been “well ahead of the curve when it comes to security resources,” said New Haven Public Schools spokeswoman Abbe Smith. Aside from the newly launched outreach program that brings NHPD officers to Hill Central and other Elm City schools every week, the NHPD has assigned seven full-time school resource officers to local high schools for years to “build positive relationships,” Smith said.

“It makes sense for other smaller cities to add school resource officers, but that’s nothing new for us,” NHPD spokesman David Hartman said. “Those resources already exist.”

Both NHPD initiatives — the school resource officers program and the weekly police visits — were established before the Sandy Hook shootings, Hartman said, pointing to a Dec. 5 press conference at Hill Central School in which the latter program was announced. In addition, the city had a number of security measures already in place, including video monitor systems, emergency protocol training programs for students and staff and security officers who are trained in lockdown procedures.

Glen Worthy, Hill School’s principal, said the weekly police visits helped smooth the post-Newtown transition, as “kids and parents [felt] more comfortable, more secure because they [saw] Officer [Robert] Clark” in the building.

Still, the Newtown shooting prompted the New Haven Board of Education to review the security needs at each school and ensure that entry system protocols are in place, according to Will Clark, chief operating officer for New Haven Public Schools. Future plans, he said, include enhancing camera technology in schools, increasing training programs to teach students how to handle emergencies and updating the lock systems in 20 schools.

“Over the last 10 years we have invested millions of dollars in security measures from [local grants] as well as the Board of Education regular budget,” he said. “We will continue to utilize local resources towards these plans and leverage them whenever possible with applicable grants and matching funds from other sources.”

NHPD Chief Dean Esserman said in early December that he plans to boost the number of full-time school resource officers to 15 in September 2013.

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