Police in schools: Ridgefield school board makes no comment

Ridgefield’s school resource officers have long had the support of the Board of Education, not just with words but with dollars — more than $317,000 in the current budget. But in the fraught political climate of 2020, the school board decided against offering Ridgefield’s experience as feedback to inform decisions on police in other schools.

The school board voted 3-5 against a motion to write about Ridgefield’s experience with school resource officers — or “SROs” — and add its perspective to debate in Washington on the “Counseling not Criminalization in Schools Act.”

Ridgefield has had an SRO at the high school since 2001, according to Police Chief Jeff Kreitz, and two more SROs were added in January 2013 — one at each middle school. The two middle School SROs also cover the six elementary schools, with duties such as leading DARE anti-drug programs.

Three officers serve as SROs — Fernando Luis, Chris Daly and Mark Giglio — and two other officers have the training necessary to be SROs when needed, Kreitz said.

The “counseling not criminalization” bill would prevent federal funds from being used to pay for police in schools across the nation, while providing more federal money for counselors, psychologists and social workers.

Connecticut U.S. Senator Chris Murphy sponsored the bill, along with Senator Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ayana Pressley, both of Massachusetts, and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

The bill “seeks to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline by shifting federal funding away from putting police in schools and instead investing billions in hiring counselors and other support personnel” according to Murphy’s website.

“All across our country, kids are being arrested, sent into the school-to-prison pipeline for ordinary misbehaviors often connected to their disabilities or childhood traumas that they have experienced,” Murphy said. “And that one negative interaction, which ends up with an arrestable offense, often leads kids down a path from which they can never, ever return.”

Minority experiences

The bill offers “findings” concerning problems minority students experience with police in schools.

“Congress finds the following: Over the last 50 years, our Nation’s schools have become sites for increased criminalization and surveillance of young people, particularly Black, Native American and Latinx students, immigrant students, students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students, students experiencing homelessness, students involved in the foster care system, and other historically marginalized students.

“Despite a significant decreases in the rate of serious crimes and violence on school campuses over the past 20 years, improving upon already low rates, 67 percent of high school students, 45 percent of middle school students, and 19 percent of elementary school student attend a school with a police officer.

“Since 1999 the federal government has invested more than $1 billion to subsidize the placement of police in schools, resulting in 46,000 school resource officers patrolling the halls of elementary and secondary public schools across the nation.

“A growing body of research has not found any evidence that police officers make school safer, and school resource officers have been shown to increase the likelihood that children will be arrested, often by the school resource officer while on campus ...

“When police are present in schools, students of color face an increased risk of being assaulted by police. Student-recorded video of police violence in schools regularly circulates through news channels, articles, and social media, exposing violence perpetrated by police within schoolhouse gates ... .

“Black students represent 31 percent of all school-related arrests, despite making up only 15 percent of all public school students …

Counselors, psychologists

It eventually addresses some schools’ lack of counseling staff.

“Ninety percent of students are in public schools where the number of counselors, social workers, nurses and psychologists to not meet recommended professional standards,” the bill says.

“1,700,000 students attend school with police but not one counselor; 3,000,000 students attend school with police but not one school nurse; 6,000,000 students attend schools with police but no school psychologists; 10,000,000 students attend schools with police but no social workers ...”

The bill’s focus is re-directing federal money sent to schools:

“... No federal funds may be appropriated or used for hiring, maintaining or training sworn law enforcement officers to be used or employed in elementary or secondary schools, preschools, or programs based in elementary or secondary schools,” the proposed law says.

It increases money for counseling staff:

“The Secretary of Education shall award grants, on a competitive and rolling basis, to local educational agencies to enable those local education agencies to:

“Replace sworn law enforcement offices in elementary and secondary schools with personnel and services that support mental health and trauma-informed services...

“To reform school safety and disciplinary policies so they reflect evidence-based practices that do not rely on the criminal justice system …”

White and Black

Murphy’s website addresses how police in schools are perceived by different racial communities.

“…There is no issue out there, I would argue, like the issue of police in schools in which we have two fundamentally different conversations happening,” Murphy says.

“In white schools, police officers are perceived to be there to protect the kids because, by and large, they are protecting the kids. They aren’t arresting white students …

“Move to the conversation that’s happening in our urban school districts, in our school districts of color where the perception is not that these police officers are out there to protect the kids, the perception is that those police officers are out to target the kids or to hassle them about getting information about some incident that happened on Saturday night or Sunday afternoon in their neighborhood.

“In these districts parents of color and students of color are desperately asking for these school resource officers to be pulled back in order to make those neighborhoods and those schools truly safe.”

Trauma practitioners

Murphy’s bill asserts that many students’ problem behaviors are due to trauma they’ve experienced, and Superintendent of Schools Susie Da Silva discussed that issue in a memorandum in advance of the school board’s discussion of the bill.

“Trauma-informed practices focus on the wellness of students who have experienced trauma and whose response to that trauma may impact their behavior, development and/or academic growth,” Da Silva wrote. “Schools that have the resources and/or practices to support children who have experienced trauma may be able to reduce the short and long-term negative impact.

“Examples of trauma can be wide-ranging and can vary in their degree of impact based on a student's age, development, personality, history, intelligence or support systems. While our schools offer trauma-informed practitioners at every level, it is important to note that the entire school community is responsible for supporting students who have experienced trauma. Practitioners across our schools include psychologists, counselors and social workers.

“In addition to the practitioners outlined above, our schools benefit from having access to School Resource Officers (SROs),” Da Silva wrote. “SROs serve our faculty, students, and families in a variety of ways, both during and after the school day.

“In addition to offering programming, such as DARE, SROs are trusted members of our school communities, and develop meaningful relationships with each school community. SROs can often be found greeting students at both the start and end of each day, attending special events for our students and performing wellness checks. Our SROs may act as liaisons, between the school, student and home.

“SROs are also trained in crisis intervention, and are offered additional training on mental health strategies for adolescents through a variety of resources and organizations such as the National Association of School Resource Officers.

Da Silva listed the relevant school personnel at each level:

The elementary schools have “two shared school resource officers” and nine school psychologists among the six schools — averaging 1.5 psychologists per school.

Each middle schools has a school resource officer (who also performed duties at three elementary schools, with the two of them covering all six).

Each middle school also has two school psychologists, three school counselors, and a “teen talk counselor” from the Kids in Crisis program.

The high school staff includes a full-time school resource officer, three school psychologists, nine school counselors, two social workers, and one teen talk counselor form Kids in Crisis.

“Each of these roles contribute significantly to our District — as our school community is not built on one title, person or group, but rather, a group of individuals that are working together towards a common goal,” Da Silva said. “Ridgefield is fortunate to have collaborative relationships that partner alongside our teachers and leadership teams to meet the needs of the whole child — socially, emotionally, and academically.”

Da Silva’s description of Ridgefield’s array of counselors, social workers and psychologists stood in contract to the litany of deprivation from Murphy’s bill: 1,700,000 students attend schools with police but no counselors; 3,000,000 students in schools with police but no nurse; 6,000,000 with police but no psychologists; 10,000,000 with police but no social workers.

Board discussion

During the board’s Oct. 13 discussion, Da Silva said all staff must be sensitive to students’ social and emotional well-being.

“All of these individuals have a responsibility,” she said. “The school administrators have a responsibility, the classroom teachers have a responsibility to be really tuned in to their kids.”

Sean McEvoy moved that the board “put together a formal board document to provide to our state senator that we support our SROs.”

“We’re two towns away from Sandy Hook,” he said. “... Previous boards have decided they’re a good idea.”

The SRO position at the high school dates back to 2001, but the expansion of the program to include SROs at the two middle schools, dates to a package of school security improvements adopted in the wake of the school shooting in Sandy Hook, Newtown.

McEvoy noted that the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education had suggested schools with SROs write Senator Murphy about their experiences.

“I for one value the SROs and I’d like to see us write a position paper.”

Kathleen Holz disagreed.

“I really do feel there’s some validity in this bill for other communities,” she said, “…I feel it came from a very real reason and there are very real data points in other communities that clearly state that law enforcement doesn’t serve children’s needs.”

McEvoy said the board was being asked to comment on Ridgefield’s experience with SROs.

“Our SROs have nothing to do with Bridgeport’s SROs,” he said.

Liz Floegel saw this issue in terms of local control.

“This limits your flexibility on a local level,” she said.

The decision to budget for SROs or counselors should be made by school boards in local communities — not as a result of Washington redirecting funding.

“This limits the ability of a local Board of Education in every single community to make that call…”

Holz was unconvinced.

“I feel our senator understands completely how important our psychologists, social workers, counselors are for all students,” she said. “That is the purpose of this bill, that the federal money is not just for guns and badges, but helping students with trauma…”

“Do you really believe our SROs provide just ‘guns and badges?’ ” Floegel asked.

Holz said she felt that was taking her statement “out of context” — she supports Ridgefield’s SROs, she said, but didn’t think the town’s experience necessarily applies to other communities with different circumstances.

“I feel very strongly we continue to fund them in our budget, we continue to support them, but I don’t think it’s necessary to write this letter,” Holz said.

Jonathan Steckler didn’t see reason too comment on Murphy’s bill.

“We don’t get federal funding — this bill has nothing to do with Ridgefield,” he said.

Ken Sjoberg agreed the board shouldn’t get involved.

“I think it’s taking what should be a bi-partisan board decision and its politicizing it,” he said.

McEvoy wanted the board to take a stand.

“We’re talking about our SROs here in Ridgefield,” he said. “Do we support them? Yes or no.”

In the end the vote was 3-to-5 with Floegel and Rachel Ruggeri joining McEvoy in support of the motion, and Nora Gaydos and chairwoman Margaret Stamatis joining Holz, Steckler and Sjoberg in opposing it.

Partners with police

“The vote in the meeting was not a vote about the Ridgefield BOE’s support of the Ridgefield SROs,” Stamatis said later. “During the meeting, the majority of BOE members explicitly stated their support of the Ridgefield SROs: Officer Luis, Officer Daly and Officer Giglio.

“The vote was about writing a letter to Senator Murphy concerning the proposed federal legislation. The majority of BOE members said that they believe the proposed federal legislation is not locally relevant to Ridgefield and thus did not support writing a letter,” she said.

“In addition to the BOE support of our School Resource Officers, we also stated in the meeting that the school district has a strong partnership with Chief Kreitz and the entire police department,” Stamatis said. “We value these relationships.”