A proposal to bring armed officers to Hamden’s elementary schools sparks debate

By Aliza Gray

Dunbar Hill Elementary School is one of eight Hamden schools that is considering implementing the employment of security resource officers.

Dunbar Hill Elementary School is one of eight Hamden schools that is considering implementing the employment of security resource officers.

In just a few weeks the Hamden Legislative Council will vote on a school budget that may include money to place armed school resource officers (SROs) in Hamden's eight elementary schools.

However, that proposal is stirring controversy in Hamden where its opponents, mainly parents, argue that the presence of armed officers is unnecessary, and will have an overwhelming negative effect on the young students.

“It’s not a good idea to make the age younger and younger when kids are interacting with the police when it’s not needed,” Hamden elementary school parent Jennifer Pope said.

SROs have been fixtures in Hamden’s middle and high schools for years, and their presence as an additional safety measure has been widely accepted by parents, teachers and students alike. The success of these programs have led many community leaders, including Mayor Curt Leng to supporting expanding them to Hamden’s elementary schools. Pending approval from the legislative council, Mayor Leng’s proposal would bring in two Hamden police officers as SROs, who would serve in each school on a rotating basis.

Pope, founder of the Hamden Progressive Action Network (HamPAN), is an outspoken critic of the mayor’s motion. She began HamPAN after the results of the 2016 presidential election inspired her to take on a  more active role in politics. During the past three years, HamPAN has focused primarily on issues at the municipal and state levels. Now, its turned its attention to keeping SROs out of elementary schools.

In March, HamPAN created a petition to halt Mayor Leng’s proposal. Citing a report from Connecticut Voices for Children, Pope voiced concern about the effect SROs have on minority students, namely students of color and those with disabilities. The results of the study, which analyzed the effect of SROs on 1000 students across the state in grades K-12, were published earlier this month.

“There are some troubling things in that report...minorities have more contact with the SROs than their white counterparts,” Pope said. “Overwhelmingly the research shows that having SROs in schools doesn’t make them safer.”

Numerous leaders in the school district would disagree. Daniel Levy has been the principal of West Woods Elementary School for the last five years. He argues that, in his experience, SROs serve a crucial role in the school district.

“I worked very closely, for a long time, with Hamden SROs, and really the SRO program is the physical manifestation of the close partnership between the police department and the school system,” Levy said. “What we had always done by working together was promote a safe and welcoming school climate conducive to learning.”

Prior to working West Woods, Levy served as the principal of Hamden Middle School for several years. During that time, he said he witnessed firsthand the positive impact that SROs had on students.

“SROs repeatedly built trusting relationships with students. I had one SRO [at Hamden Middle School], Officer [Andrea] Vay...she used to play violin in our school orchestra with the kids,” Levy said. “Having strong relationships with adults who care for them, who can assist them, is so important.”

Jody Goeler, superintendent for the Hamden school district, echoes Levy’s sentiment, adding that the presence of SROs facilitates a safe learning environment.

“Because there’s so many of them and so few of us, it’s very important that if our students see something or are involved with something that presents a safety concern to them that they have immediate access to and a trusting relationship with a police officer so they can get the help they need,” Goeler said. “They work effectively with our security guards as well, and they also work effectively with our administration.”

Goeler went on to say that should a crisis occur, having officers in the school would be hugely beneficial in minimizing the threat and protecting students.

“[SROs] are effective on a variety of levels. If there are issues relating to say a bomb scare or other kind of safety concern, we have people in those schools who are immediately accessible to help us address those concerns and maintain the safety of our students,” Goeler said.

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Not only would these officers be a familiar face to students during an emergency, but Principal Levy also pointed out that having SROs cycle through schools would give them a chance to get familiar with the physical layout of the buildings, allowing them to act more quickly in a crisis.

“God forbid if they needed to respond to a school, they’d be familiar with the layout,” Levy said. “We don’t want to be experiencing a response for the first time in an actual emergency.”

As superintendent, Goeler also created a budget proposal for the upcoming school year, and it does not include funds for bringing officers into Hamden’s elementary schools. Despite understanding the benefits, he believes there are better ways to use the money to meet the needs of the community. Of the issues students in Hamden are facing, Goeler believes that a lack of mental health resources is the most pressing. His proposal features funds set aside for the purpose of bringing mental health professionals into the schools.

Goeler explained that, in an ideal scenario, there would be enough money in the town’s budget to finance both an SRO program at the elementary school level in addition to mental health resources. Given the limited budget however, Goeler stands behind his proposal to use the funds to promote the mental health of students.

“If I had my druthers and money wasn’t an issue, I wouldn’t be opposed to having SROs in all of our buildings because I’ve seen that work in other districts,” Goeler said. “In an environment where we have only a finite amount of dollars, I want to put them towards the kind of support that our students need to access their education. Right now, those needs center around mental health support.”