Bridgeport debates adding cops to schools

Back • Publication Date: June 9, 2022 • Rights & Justice

BRIDGEPORT — The police lieutenant who oversees the handful of officers assigned the city’s public schools this week called for that program to get a boost in manpower.

“At the end of the day I think we do need more SROs (school resource officers) in Bridgeport,” Lt. Paul Grech told members of the City Council’s education committee during a teleconference Wednesday. “If a school calls 9-1-1, it should be an SRO responding.”

Due to budget constraints and concerns about their presence having a negative impact in particular on Black and brown students, the number of SROs in Bridgeport has over time been reduced from 14 who spent a lot of time inside the buildings to 4 who generally make visits and respond to calls for assistance. Public schools currently instead have unarmed security.

The education committee met Wednesday to begin to debate Testani’s request. He was invited but, co-chairman Jorge Cruz told his committee colleagues, had a conflict. So it was Grech who defended what the SROs do and encouraged the members to bolster their ranks.

“People should model what we’ve done in Bridgeport all over the country,” Grech said, arguing the officers under his command are specially trained and work hard to establish relationships with students and school staff and resolve any issues through mediation and mentoring rather than arrests.

And, Grech argued, with or without SROs, school officials routinely place emergency calls for assistance.

“What would you prefer to have? Officers that have the training and relationships with the schools or a city officer that just goes there and just takes a call?” Grech said.

As reported last month, two prominent community groups — FaithActs for Education and the Greater Bridgeport Branch NAACP — in response to the superintendent’s email said “no” to having the police more involved with the schools.

And during Wednesday’s teleconference some education committee members and their council colleagues listening in also voiced reservations and cast doubt on Grech’s insistence arrests are the last resort.

Maria Pereira, an education committee member who once sat on the school board, said there is no data proving SROs prevent mass shootings, but evidence is they contribute to the “school-to-prison” pipeline.

“In addition, schools with SROs disciplined students more often for behaviors that were likely not criminal. Schools with SROs reported higher levels of school policy violations, such as skipping class, insubordination, or using profanity,” concluded Connecticut Voices for Children’s analysis.

Councilman Scott Burns, whose budget committee would eventually have to approve transferring funds to the district for more SROs, admitted Grech “has done a good job” but added, “I’m not a fan of having SROs in schools.”

“If we’re gonna arm-up a building, we’ve got to think about the consequences. I think if our kids are seeing armed folks walk around … they’ll get use to that and I don’t think that’s the world we want to get used to,” Burns said.

In contrast Michelle Lyons, an education committee member, voiced support for increasing the amount of SROs in Bridgeport. Lyons recalled being relieved to know a state trooper was assigned as a school resource officer at Platt Technical High School in Milford when her grandson, who she said is Hispanic, attended.

“No issues. No problems. I felt safe, as a grandmother,” Lyons said.

Marc Donald, executive director of RYASAP — the Bridgeport-based Regional Youth Adult Social Action Partnership — was also invited to attend Wednesday’s teleconference. RYASAP is involved in several, teen-focused initiatives, including efforts to divert them from the juvenile court system.

Two board of education members — Albert Benejan and Joseph Sokolovic — also participated Wednesday.

Sokolovic, one of the few Republican elected officials in Democrat-controlled Bridgeport, praised Grech and his current SROs, but warned, “It may not always be the case there’s Lt. Grech.”

He, too, fears re-introducing a greater police presence could result in more Black and brown students getting involved in the criminal justice system.

Benejan suggested, “Let’s put the SROs on the side and let’s hire more security.”

The debate over the effectiveness of the officers aside, the other big question hanging over Testani’s request is where the city will come up with the money.

The superintendent did not attach a specific amount to his request for more SROs, but Pereira on Wednesday recalled it cost about $500,000 for five school resource officers when she was still on the school board a few years ago.

Isolina DeJesus, Bridgeport’s grants director, advised the education committee Wednesday that the U.S. Department of Justice offers school violence prevention dollars, but requires municipalities commit 25 percent worth of matching funds.

“One of the things that always keeps us from being able to apply is we have to find at least 25 percent,” DeJesus said.

Committee Co-Chairman Jorge Cruz last month backed the superintendent’s request for more SROs. On Wednesday he said he respects his colleagues’ concerns but does not want to be in a position of, after a tragedy, lamenting elected officials in Bridgeport had not done more to safeguard students and faculty.

“What is the alternative to make these schools safe?” Cruz said.

Authors: Brian Lockhart •  Source: CT Post • View