Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s school reform campaign, dubbed “School Change,” is bringing in reinforcements: the cops.
The mayor, speaking to a class of recruits at the New Haven Police Academy last Thursday, stressed his belief that addressing chronic problems such as high truancy and dropout rates requires the involvement of an engaged and community-focused police department. Officials from the Board of Education and the New Haven Police Department said they will strengthen the link between police officers and public schools through the expansion of youth programs that build trust between officers and schoolchildren.
“I think there’s a tendency for kids in inner cities to harbor negative attitudes toward the police,” said Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances “Bitsie” Clark, who chairs the Youth Services Committee. “What the mayor is talking about is the role of the police not as enforcers but as educators and role models.”
One program, Gang Resistance Education and Training, or GREAT, a police officer mentoring program in schools that is now in its second year, will be expanded alongside DeStefano’s school reform plans. Ward 20 Alderman Charles Blango, the assistant dropout and truancy prevention coordinator for the Board of Education, said GREAT will be administered at six schools this year, up from two in 2008, and is scheduled to expand to at least two more in 2010.
City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said the city also will seek to expand its Police Explorers Program, which provides schoolchildren with hands-on experience and training opportunities for future careers in law enforcement.
But Clark said the city should be sure to focus on students’ activities both during and after school, given a dearth of safe places within the city for adolescents to hang out. She cited the mayor’s 2006 youth initiatives — including Youth@Work, which provides teenagers with employment opportunities, and Open Schools, which keeps school buildings and athletics facilities available after hours — as examples of progress, but she said much more must be done.
Police are also becoming more involved after school hours: A growing partnership formed last year between the Police Activities League, or PAL, and the Boys & Girls Club of New Haven, or BGC. Stephanie Barnes, BGC’s executive director and former project coordinator of Youth@Work, said the arrangement has strengthened both programs, which sponsor athletics leagues, educational activities and other programs for children who may not have a safe place to go when classes end.
“Our missions really overlap, so it was a natural fit. We’re trying to reach kids at an early age and reinforce their learning in school in a place where they can come to grow and make friendships,” she said. “We hope to be a part of the conversation,” she added, referring to the mayor’s renewed calls for reform.
Blango added that the partnership with PAL means that parents of at-risk youth, many of whom work multiple jobs, can feel safe sending their children to participate in BGC activities.
Despite the successes of several individual programs, however, doubt remains among some city officials about whether a cohesive strategy can be implemented that will use the city’s educational and law enforcement resources to maximum effect.
On the government level, Clark suggested an interagency approach: “I’d like to see us pool together the expertise from all the departments with a focus on youth issues,” she said.
She added, “I’d like to see the mayor spend some real time on this, not just announce something.”
Since 1995, the NHPD has offered the School Resource Officer program, which assigns seven officers to the schools reporting the highest crime rates.