Bridgeport superintendent wants more cops at schools post-Texas shooting

Back • Publication Date: May 29, 2022 • Rights & Justice

BRIDGEPORT — A call by the superintendent to boost the district’s number of school resource officers to better protect students and faculty is being met with mixed reaction by the elected officials who would need to fund the positions.

On Thursday Superintendent Michael Testani in an email to City Council members and local state legislators called for a reappraisal of the reduction of SROs — sworn, armed police — over the past few years due to budget constraints and concerns about their having a negative impact in particular on students of color.

“We are once again discussing a senseless and tragic event involving the loss of the lives of precious children and teachers in our nation. The debate has already begun as to how this act of violence could have been prevented,” Testani wrote, referring to the mass shooting Tuesday of 19 children and two teachers by an 18-year-old at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

Testani continued, “I am asking our elected officials to re-visit reinstating and funding a proper SRO division to support our district. We once had a team of 14 dedicated officers to safely secure our schools. We are currently operating with only 4 officers. This is a monumental task that simply cannot be effective for a school district with over 19,000 children. Let’s put personal feelings on the issue aside and have a meaningful discussion around this extremely important issue.”

Testani did not respond to requests for comment. Bridgeport has around three dozen public schools, all of which have at least one private, but unarmed, security guard.

John Weldon, chairman of the Bridgeport Board of Education, said Friday SROs are different and he too would like to hire more.

“They’re police officers who have special training to be equipped to deal with circumstances that youth could find themselves placed in. Security guards are there as a body — a checkpoint. They can do basic security functions,” Weldon said.

He said the current four SROs are “spread pretty thin” and it is time for a discussion about again making them more of a priority.

But the challenge is money. In the just-concluded 2022-23 municipal budget season, the school board had sought an $8.5 million increase for education from Mayor Joe Ganim and the City Council, and Testani had said at least $5 million was needed to maintain “the status quo.” They got an additional $2 million.

The co-chairs of the council’s education committee — Aikeem Boyd and Jorge Cruz — said Friday they support Testani’s intent.

“They’re just security guards, right?” Boyd said. “As long as our kids are protected, that’s all I care about.”

“We need to get them (SROs) in there,” Cruz said. “If we don’t help our schools, we will be complicit if something as bad as that (Uvalde) happens.”

And their colleague, Councilman Ernie Newton, a budget committee chairman, said, “I think it’s a dialogue we should have. With what’s going on around the country, we just gotta be more prepared.”

But his co-chairman, Scott Burns, and others on the council referred to the potential negative impact the SROs are thought to have. Critics say they contribute to the school-to-prison-pipeline by placing a greater emphasis on discipline than on social services, particularly in the case of students of color.

“I do have the concern about urban settings where you put a cop in the school and the long-term repercussions aren’t great,” Burns said Friday. “You want to keep kids safe. I get that. But I’m a little concerned it’s a knee jerk reaction. … I think SROs can work in the right way and place, but just a blanket policy of putting cops in schools I’m not sure is proven to be the best approach.”

Councilwoman Maria Pereira is a former school board member. She cited a report released in April 2019 by the Connecticut Voices for Children nonprofit that concluded, based on data from the 2015-16 academic year, that SROs did not have an appreciable impact on safety, but “their presence may contribute to more students experiencing discipline (and) the average arrest rate of Latino students at schools with an SRO was six times greater than the average arrest rate of Latino students at schools without an SRO.”

“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.

Pereira also questioned how a school resource officer could stop a heavily-armed individual.

“If you’re an SRO with a traditional pistol and somebody comes in with an assault rifle (and) bullet proof vest, tell me how that SRO is gonna stop the terrorist?” Pereira said. “Give me some data, some evidence, that SROs do anything other than cause predominantly minority children … anything other than severe disciplinary consequences.”

City Council President Aidee Nieves is “torn” on the subject. She said initially the intent behind SRO programs was a noble one — to provide a kind of community policing where officers built positive relationships with students and organized youth activities.

“But then there was a shift when they were using SROs not to foster relationships, (but) more to penalize students,” Nieves said Friday. “They became disciplinarians.”

Nieves also suggested that, with Bridgeport beginning a national search for a permanent police chief, the city hold off on bolstering the existing number of SROs until the individual hired later this year can weigh in.

State Rep. Antonio Felipe said Testani had spurred “an important discussion.” Felipe said before he were to try and seek any state funding to assist in hiring SROs, he would want to “change the definition” of what they do with a greater emphasis on addressing students’ mental health needs.

“They need to be better at de-escalation than a militant force,” Felipe said. “They can’t be guards. They have to be resources.”

Joseph Sokolovic sits on the Bridgeport Board of Education and, with Weldon, is one of the few Republican elected officials in this Democrat-dominated city. Sokolovic in a statement Friday said SROs should be stationed outside of the school buildings.

“They should not be used to enforce school policy and resolve disciplinary issues,” Sokolovic said. “Care must be taken to not increase the school-to-prison pipeline by the use of increased policing of a demographic that has not traditionally been known to be involved in mass shootings.”

The heads of two prominent community groups — FaithActs for Education and the Greater Bridgeport Branch NAACP — on Friday said they were opposed to hiring more school resource officers.

“Our thousands of members and registered voters have consistently shared that they don’t want a police presence in our school buildings — that what our kids need are more social workers and counselors,” Jamilah Prince-Stewart, FaithActs’ executive director, said in a statement to Hearst Connecticut Media. “The superintendent should listen to the voices of the people, and base his decisions on their feedback.”

And Rev. D. Stanley Lord, the NAACP’s president, in an interview said, “Students of color have suffered at the hands of resource officers. … First thing that breaks out, you call the officer, the school-to-prison pipeline continues.”

Meanwhile Ana Batista, head of the Bridgeport Education Association teachers’ union, said the SROs can have a positive influence if they build relationships and get to know students and their families. That is something the private security do not do, she said.

“I know there have been many people that have criticized it. I’ve been in meetings where they say, ‘No, we don’t want that,’” Batista recalled. “But we also cannot continue with what’s going on. I know many of us did not sleep at all when we heard about this (Uvalde). This has been devastating.”

Authors: Brian Lockhart •  Source: CT Post • View