‘Students feel criminalized’: Push to get cops out of New Haven schools grows

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James Hillhouse High School, New Haven, Conn.

James Hillhouse High School, New Haven, Conn.

/ Hearst Connecticut Media file photo

NEW HAVEN — The city’s school district is down to three uniformed police officers for its buildings and that leaves Superintendent of Schools Iline Tracey with decisions to make for when high schools reopen April 5.

“We are only going to get about three SROs this year, and I have to decide who gets them,” Tracey said.

The district previously had nine school resource officers, and the reduction — partly due to city budget cuts — also comes as the Board of Education must consider a proposal to “phase out” its program of having police officers stationed in high schools.

The phase-out proposal came from a committee the school board appointed after student activists last summer demanded that uniformed police officers be removed from New Haven schools during a youth-led Black Lives Matter march that drew thousands. As the issue remains a source of debate, the committee’s recommendation is for the district to “wean” itself off of uniformed police officers in schools, but without removing them from buildings right away.

Members of the Citywide Youth Coalition lead a march protesting police brutality and the killing of George Floyd organized with Black Lives Matter New Haven down State Street in New Haven to the New Haven Police Department on June 5, 2020.

Members of the Citywide Youth Coalition lead a march protesting police brutality and the killing of George Floyd organized with Black Lives Matter New Haven down State Street in New Haven to the New Haven Police Department on June 5, 2020.

Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media

“It is the responsibility of schools to guard the socio-emotional and academic well-being of students,” said committee Co-Chairman Carlos Torre, a former member of the school board and an education professor at Southern Connecticut State University. “But, given the circumstances in which we’re living, you can’t do that unless you also take care of the physical safety of students.”

Police in schools

Lihane Arouna, a senior at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School who brought the issue to the school board’s attention, said the presence of police in schools is seen as detrimental to many students’ overall mental health and engagement in school.

“Many students feel criminalized and overly-monitored by them,” she said.

School board member Darnell Goldson, who is Black, said he experienced “police misconduct” firsthand as a teenager.

“They mess with you, they put you in jail, you go to court the next day and they dismiss the charges,” he said. “That’s happened to me.”

As a result, Goldson said he understands why some teenagers feel the way they do.

Board of Education member Darnell Goldson on March 9, 2020.

Board of Education member Darnell Goldson on March 9, 2020.

Brian Zahn /Hearst Connecticut Media file photo /

Arouna said she believes the presence of police officers in schools contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline — a concept that Black and brown students experience disproportionately harsher discipline while in school, which subsequently leads to things such as academic exclusion for youths of color and eventually to things such as exposure to the justice system.

“The people we do need in schools are mental health professionals,” she said, school employees who can take a “proactive” approach to student discipline instead of a “reactive” approach.

Circumstances in the past year already had begun to decrease the number of resource officers in city schools. The school resource officers are employed by the city Police Department, but department cuts led to school resource officers being recalled back to the force. This year, the city’s budget reduced the Police Department’s sworn positions from 434 to 406.


In two surveys of mostly New Haven students and parents commissioned by the committee, more than 60 percent of respondents said they think school resource officers are “necessary” in schools. More than two-thirds said they were opposed to having school resource officers removed from buildings.

The committee also evaluated district data to understand the prevalence of arrests in schools. The data shows there were 230 student arrests from 2014 to 2020 in New Haven schools, with a 39.4 percent decrease in arrests between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years. Although one girl was arrested in 2014, by 2020 girls made up half of student arrests. Not all school-based arrests are done by school resource officers.

Michael Pavano, a teacher at the district’s alternative high school and a former police officer as well as a co-chairman of the committee looking at the resource officer issue, said the city’s number of school-based arrests puts it roughly on par with Stamford, Stratford and Norwalk.

The relationship between the New Haven Public Schools and the New Haven Police Department is governed by a memorandum of understanding from 2011 — one that Torre said is “outdated.” The Register requested a copy of the MOU from the school district, Police Department and city; none was able to produce the document.


Goldson, though he noted he had had negative experiences with New Haven police in his youth, said he was undecided on the resource officer issue.

“I get a lot of calls from people who work in the school system, especially security officers, who say, ‘Please don’t take these SROs away, we need them here,’” he said.

Board member Larry Conaway, a retired principal, said that when he was an administrator, school security guards were “my first line of security” before involving school resource officers. But he said he believes a lot of the discussion around school security can be muddied by the general public not knowing how to discern between school security — who are employed by the district — and school resource officers, who are uniformed police officers hired to the city’s police force.

The discussion around SROs also is being argued at both the state and federal level. State Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, proposed a bill in the current legislative session to phase out school resource officers from schools. Although the General Assembly has not taken up the bill, Winfield said it is an important issue to discuss to prevent “more arrests for children of color.”

“We keep trying to figure out how to make police officers work in schools, and that’s not what we need in schools,” he said. “My opinion overall is, whether it’s an urban district or not, SROs do not belong in schools and that discipline is in the purview of district administrators. If there are resources needed in the school, that should be expressed.”

State Senator Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, 2017.

State Senator Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, 2017.

File Photo / File Photo

Winfield said it should be legislators such as himself who “should get to our jobs” in providing the necessary resources for schools to address discipline in a way that does not criminalize students.

“If we need mentors we should get mentors. If we need counselors, we should get counselors,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., sponsored a bill in the last session to remove all federal funding for school resource officers.

But Torre said such a bill would not impact New Haven’s SRO program, as it does not receive federal funding. However, he said, it was important for the committee to note the role a Connecticut senator is playing in the national discussion on the issue.

John DeCarlo, director of the University of New Haven’s graduate program in criminal justice and a retired Branford police chief, said he agrees with those who suggest hiring more school counselors and psychologists, but not to supplant the role of SROs.

“SROs don’t do counseling, they do security checks,” he said. “Police do safety, psychologists do psychology and social workers do social work.”

DeCarlo said that he believes school officials should be “careful” about acting too soon to remove school resource officers from schools.

“If there’s a fight in the hallway or someone comes in with a gun, a psychologist is not going to do anything at all, nor is a social worker; they’re going to be a fellow victim,” he said.

Interim New Haven Police Chief Renee Dominguez, March 12, 2021.

Interim New Haven Police Chief Renee Dominguez, March 12, 2021.

Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticut Media file photo

New Haven Acting Police Chief Renee Dominguez said the department sees the SRO program as essential because of how it ties into the department’s stated goal of community policing.

“SROs in schools go beyond just providing additional school security in an attempt to prevent violent events that could occur on or around school property,” she said.

“The SRO program provides positive interactions and mentorship opportunities between students and police officers. Many officers, when asked, will name their SRO who was a positive role model during their schooling and placed them on the path to eventually become police officers themselves.”


The Board of Education is expected to vote on the SRO committee’s recommendations next month. In the final report, the committee outlined 14 action steps. Several relate to acquiring more funding for initiatives to increase mental health and counseling supports in schools, a mission that is already underway according to district staff.

Career High School

Career High School


Assistant Superintendent of Schools Keisha Redd-Hannans said the district has already been able to identify funding for nine more positions — three counselors, three school psychologists and three social workers — under federal aid grant money awarded to the district as part of its COVID-19 recovery efforts.

The committee’s action steps also suggest doing more education around the role of SROs and requiring them to provide regular reports to the public.

Torre said he believes some of the action steps should be relatively easy to implement. He said when he spoke with former Police Chief Otoniel Reyes, who served as chief throughout the majority of the five months during which the committee was operational, he agreed that if police visit a school that they could park their cars in the staff lot instead of in front of schools, something that could create the image that there is a police emergency at that school.

Torre said he believes it should also be possible to give SROs a change in uniform, so they do not look as though they are on patrol while working in schools.

Arouna, the student, said she objects to one of the action steps calling for the formation of a formalized mentorship program between students and SROs. She also said she believes the committee’s final recommendation that SROs should be gradually phased out of schools while promoting and hiring alternatives deserves a timetable.

She said she is opposed to continuing the SRO program in any capacity, although she ultimately supports the committee’s overall recommendation because of its focus on eliminating the program over time.