School resource officers felled by state budget ax

On a recent Thursday night, the auditorium at Griswold High School was packed. Hundreds of people filled the seats, with dozens left standing in the back.

It wasn't the annual high school musical or a senior awards night. It was the fifth-grade DARE graduation.

"DARE is about making positive decisions. I will not be there and nor will your parents and grandparents when it comes time for them to make those decisions," State Trooper First Class Frank Galley told the audience as he paced the stage with one of the graduates in tow.

The nearly two-hour event capped one of the many programs that Galley, the school resource officer in Griswold and North Stonington, runs as part of a community policing initiative. The effort aims to prevent school violence, improve relationships between police, children and their families and educate students about how to make responsible choices.

Galley did not let on how important the ceremony was to him until the end, when in between accolades for the students he mentioned that the graduation could be his last as the district's SRO.

The students started to boo and the adults who were not aware of the news starting asking each other why.

In May, the state Department of Public Safety announced that the school resource officer program will be suspended as of July 1 in an effort to save $1.2 million.

The 19 troopers across the state who are school resource officers will be reassigned to patrol responsibilities, according to state police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance. The projected savings will primarily come from a decrease in overtime expenses for patrol units, he said.

For Griswold, one of the first school districts to take advantage of the program more than a decade ago, the personal loss of Galley and the professional loss of someone considered to be a de facto faculty member is both upsetting and potentially disruptive, according to school officials.

Superintendent of Schools Paul Freeman has written to Gov. M. Jodi Rell asking for the funding to be restored and explaining just how important the position is within the district. Griswold High School Principal Mark Frizzell is trying to remember how he did business before having a school resource officer.

"That connection, that person being involved with the child and then working with the parents, having that dual role, and at the same time enforcing the law … you polish those elements and that's the magic," Frizzell said.

"We have a trooper that thinks like an educator, who understands intervention and discipline within a school … and fits right in. He's not a last resource, he's in on things from the get-go," Frizzell said.

Budget casualty

The state's school resource officer program began several years ago through a federal grant to put troopers in the state's technical high schools, Vance said. It was expanded to include schools covered either by one of the state's 11 police barracks or the Resident State Trooper program.

When the federal funding expired, the department continued to pay for the program through its budget.

Now that the program has been cut, Vance said, if the services of a trooper are needed in one of the schools, support will be made available through the region's barracks.

"We're not taking the ball and running away with it," Vance said. "It's just a little change. We'll still provide the service, it's just that the schools won't have the luxury of having an SRO in-house all week."

Local schools that will lose the service include Griswold, North Stonington, Grasso Tech, Norwich Tech and St. Joseph's in Sprague.

Trooper Steven Rief, the president of the Connecticut State Police Union, questioned the projected savings since the troopers in the positions will not lose their jobs.

"It's frustrating from the rank and file that a program that works is exactly the thing that gets cut," he said. "There's more need and demand for it now and it's exactly the wrong time to cut it."

Municipal school resource officers are not exempt from the state's financial straits, either.

In Norwich, a city with significant budget problems, the $202,000 reserved for two school resource officers at Kelly Middle School and Teachers Memorial Middle School has been eliminated from the school budget.

Within the past couple of years, New London public schools saw the loss of one of its SROs. Superintendent of Schools Nicholas Fischer said the school district and city are trying to obtain federal funding to restore the second position.

Making a difference

On the desk of North Stonington First Selectman Nicholas Mullane is a quote from Frederick Douglass: "It's easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."

Mullane, who worked with the Troop E barracks in Montville to have an SRO assigned to the school district, said North Stonington really didn't have an opportunity to enjoy the full effect of Galley's presence.

"He no sooner got established and then the source was pulled," Mullane said. "Without a doubt there are problems in every school district and the assistance would have been greatly appreciated."

Montville Superintendent of Schools Pamela Aubin said School Resource Officer Bruce Rockwell, from the Montville town police department, walks the hallways, just as any other member of the school community, checking in with students and being conscious of things that could potentially be trouble.

"There is a partnership between the schools and police," Aubin said, adding that Rockwell's expertise in changing technology helps administrators' efforts to stay on top of issues such as cyber-bullying.

In New London, Fischer said students are the best "metal detectors" in determining what's going on in the school and surrounding neighborhoods. For students to be comfortable sharing what they know, adults in the schools have to foster a positive, and trusting, relationship.

Fischer recalled an incident when students "weren't being as polite as they should" in a nearby neighborhood. Within a day of asking the police chief for help, patrolmen and school resource officer Max Bertsch had spoken to students, telling them that the behavior wouldn't be tolerated.

More serious threats have also been thwarted because of the trust earned between SROs and students, according to Trooper Rief.

Last year, a 16-year-old Norwich Tech student had threatened to kill people at the school. Troopers went to the student's house in Colchester and found a homemade bomb and sawed-off shotgun.

If the student intended to carry out the threat, the plan was stopped in part because of the relationship technical school SRO Trooper Jeff Rogers had established with the students, Rief said.

Setting the tone

Allison Doyle, a Griswold parent and former school employee, said having a resource officer sets a different tone in the building.

"Not just disciplinary, but the way he reaches out to the students and provides that bridge between law enforcement, educators and parents," Doyle said.

With less than a month left before Galley is reassigned, Frizzell said he has already started to think about "shifting gears from intervention through discipline to consequences."

"I've lived those years and don't want to go back," he said.

While Galley, a former Marine, said he will dutifully follow orders and return to road patrol he is concerned that the community policing effort will have taken a back seat.

"It's always easier to show failures than it is to show successes," he said.

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