James Larson, Photo Editor

From Minneapolis to New Haven, Black Lives Matter activists have called for a reduced police presence in their cities — including at schools.

In New Haven, some activists have turned their attention to the city’s School Resource Officer program, which provides roughly a dozen uniformed officers that rotate throughout the city’s various public schools. According to the New Haven Police Department, the officers are tasked with preventing criminal activity on school campuses and engaging in conflict resolution — a job, according to some city residents, that they do well. The NHPD SROs also run various community programs in an attempt to improve police-student relations. 

But in recent months, youth activists, social science researchers and Board of Education members have pushed back against the idea that continued police presence at schools benefits local youth. Groups like the Citywide Youth Coalition — a youth advocacy group — and Black Lives Matter New Haven called for reduced funding for the SRO program as a step towards defunding the police.

Earlier this year, the Board of Education formed an Ad Hoc School Security Design Committee composed of BOE members, school administrators, teachers, students and other community members. The committee met last week to discuss the future of SROs in New Haven public schools. 

While some in the city laud the program as an example of positive community policing and note successful intervention programs, many meeting attendees and other New Haveners have advocated for removal of SROs from schools, saying that they harm — rather than protect — the students they aim to serve.

“It felt like jail,” said recent NHPS graduate Mellody Massaquoi. “To know that you have officers in school who have the power to arrest you and criminalize you for minor infractions, while other students will get social workers and help.”

Since city public schools closed due to the pandemic, all officers who usually serve as SROs have returned to patrol duties. But at the beginning of the 2020 calendar year, former head of the NHPD SRO program Sergeant Ron Ferrante said, the department had eight active-duty officers working as SROs at New Haven public schools. 

Officers who serve as SROs must undergo multiple trainings before they work at schools. These include courses on topics like de-escalation tactics, crisis intervention and “hate and bias.”

According to the Connecticut Office of Legislative Research, in 2018, 70 out of 113 school districts in Connecticut used SROs at some point. Ferrante said that last year, NHPD SROs responded to 2,000 school-site calls and made 30 on-campus arrests.

“I wish in a perfect world, there would be no arrests,” Ferrante said. “In a perfect world, I understand there would be no officers in schools, but we’re not at that.”

Still, Ferrante said, he “love[s] the program.” He emphasized that he wants to see the SRO program do “whatever is going to provide the best outcome or help for the community,” as he sees the officers as “quintessential to community based policing.”

Board of Education member Larry Conaway, who sits on the Ad Hoc School Security Design Committee, said in an interview with the News that the committee has heard numerous perspectives on the value of SROs. He said that some community members have suggested to reform SRO training curriculums and find ways to create positive, working relationships between the SROs and the school communities they serve.

Ricardo Rodriguez, an SRO at Wilbur Cross High School, is among the proponents of continued officer presence in schools. In June, Rodriguez made a Change.org petition calling for the preservation of the New Haven SRO program. He made the petition after two BOE members, Tamiko Jackson-McArthur and Darnell Goldson, announced their support for removing SROs from NHPS.

“There are many great interactions that [have] helped the kids during critical times in their lives,” the petition reads. “Eliminating this program will only hurt the children and families in the city.”

As of Wednesday, the petition has garnered 906 signatures.

Ferrante stressed the importance of the SRO program’s community focus, referring to its Police Activity League camp. The program is a free summer camp for students that revolves around police-community building through activities like basketball and bowling. The camp is run in part by NHPD officers.

Ferrante added that SROs have also found other ways to create connections with school communities. Some have taught courses at schools, while others have volunteered to drive students around in their cruisers. Ferrante said that one NHPD officer has even adopted a student.

Still, after a summer that elevated national conversations on race and policing, some students have advocated for the removal of SROs from school sites. BOE student representative and Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School student Lihame Arouna called for the redirection of municipal funds towards other school services like additional school counselors.

Conaway said that he has heard from other community members who have also advocated for reallocation of police funds towards the NHPS system, to fund employees like social workers and school truancy officers. Conaway told the News that the Board of Education does not have jurisdiction over the SRO program funds; the NHPD provides them at no additional cost.

Personally, Conaway said that “95 percent” of his experiences with SROs have been positive.

“I do think that sometimes you do need school resource officers,” said Conaway in an interview with the News. “I think if they are trained properly and you build a good relationship with them and they work as a part of a support team, I think it could work.”

But at the Nov. 24 committee meeting, the vast majority of the 22 parents, students, teachers and school administrators who spoke asked the district to remove SROs from schools. Just 4 speakers advocated for their continued presence.

Current NHPS student Jhoanell Ruiz said that SROs create a sense of unease among students. Ruiz added that having SROs stationed near schools in patrol cars for emergencies, instead of in schools, would be ideal and might help reduce some of the tension between SROs and students.

In addition to student testimony, some parents and teachers used statistics to back the removal of SROs from school sites. One parent referenced the findings of an April 2019 report by Connecticut Voices for Children — a researched-based advocacy organization for disadvantaged students and families alike — on the impact of SROs in Connecticut schools.

The policy report cited a 2016 study that found that an increase in the number of SROs has not correlated with a definitive increase in students’ sense of safety at schools, nor in their academic performances. The study surveyed 2,015 students from 12 schools with SROs on a series of questions regarding their experiences with the officers.

The same report warned that SROs could turn schools into “more punitive” environments. It stated that disciplinary actions at schools disproportionately impact Black and Latino students despite the fact that these students are not more likely to misbehave than their White counterparts. The report also warned that arrests can have a traumatizing experience on students due to their young age.

But Lauren Ruth, one of the co-authors of the report, said that the Elm City’s unique approach to youth discipline creates an environment less prone to SRO over-involvement. The city’s school-based intervention program, Youth Stat, connects students to local resources like gang intervention, tutoring and academic support. The program is a joint collaboration between the mayor’s office, New Haven courts, the superintendent and other community groups.

“It’s led to tremendous drops in exclusionary discipline and arrest rates,” Ruth said. “New Haven has restorative justice practices that were started by the teachers. Compared to other cities of its size, New Haven is kind of a shining example.“

Four community members, including retired Ross-Woodward Classical Studies Magnet School Principal Cheryl Herring-Brown and New Haven Academy math teacher Marianne Maloney, spoke against the removal of SROs. Both Herring-Brown and Maloney highlighted positive experiences they have had with SROs.

“We had a kid who had a seizure. That officer was right there and made contact with the EMTs,” Maloney said. “As hard as we try as teachers to eliminate bullying, those students [who get bullied] know that they can stand near an officer and be safe.”

The School Security Design Committee has also compiled a student survey with the help of the Board of Education Student Council. An early November version of the survey obtained by the News includes inquiries on student opinion regarding prior interactions with and trust of SROs. It also polls students’ opinions on removing SROs from schools. The student survey, in addition to surveys for teachers and administrators, will help the committee make a recommendation to the Board of Education by the end of 2020. But the committee has yet to completely administer the survey. 

There are over 20,000 students enrolled in New Haven Public Schools.

Talat Aman | talat.aman@yale.edu

Christian Robles | christian.robles@yale.edu