A candid debate over assigning police officers to schools is overdue in Connecticut.
Like the best debate topics, this is not an easy one. The impulse in some quarters to expel police as a backlash against law enforcement would be inappropriate. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, a flurry of major American cities, including Minneapolis, hastily ended their contracts with police. Connecticut is poised to give the matter thoughtful consideration.
Likewise, the collateral damage of school resource officers must no longer be ignored. They don’t just send kids to the principal’s office; they have a duty to take enforcement action in many circumstances. As a result, Connecticut Voices for Children says Latino students who attend schools with officers are six times more likely to be arrested than white students. Black students are twice as likely, according to the New Haven nonprofit.
Connecticut lawmakers are actively trying to address this divisive issue with different tactics.
Sen. Gary A. Winfield, D-New Haven, introduced a bill early in the legislative session that would eventually eliminate SROs. It failed.
On a federal level, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, is trying again to pump grant funding — $2.5 billion of it — dedicated to adding the likes of therapists and social workers to schools. The Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act has been thwarted in the past, but has better odds now that his party calls the shots in both chambers.
The General Assembly is now considering yet another approach, the proposed creation of a task force that would offer recommendations on the future of SROS.
Too often, task forces deliver reports that are left unread by policymakers. But this issue merits balanced exploration.
There are SRO success stories. Greenwich Board of Education Chair Peter Bernstein points to Greenwich High School SRO Carlos Franco being chosen as the 2018 commencement speaker. It underscores the value of humanizing police as mentors.
This issue, though, is really about the role police play in urban districts. In 2018, SROs were used in 70 of Connecticut’s 113 districts, and there were only 147 in the entire state.
A task force could dig deeper into incidents involving students as young as 6 being arrested. Yes, educators sometimes have to deal with extreme behavior from young students. Arresting them should never be a solution.
A task force should also analyze how many districts have counselors or social workers on staff. Even in cases where police have to intervene, the goal should be to identify support for the student, not to feed the school-to-prison pipeline.
There are other ways to build trust between youth and cops. Hosting police for occasional classroom visits will usually have benefits, but security guards can handle on-site issues while taking different courses of action than officers. And police are always a phone call away.
Communities should strive to create learning environments where police are not a presence, and more counselors are available to students. Creating an appropriate task force will make Connecticut do its homework.