Norwich police made frequent trips to city schools

Norwich — School Superintendent Abby Dolliver was in a meeting at Kelly Middle School after 5 p.m. Sept. 5, when she heard strange noises coming from the roof.

She went outside and saw several older youths — not Kelly students — skateboarding on the roof while another youth took a video. Dolliver yelled for them to come down. Their response was not printable. She called police.

“Kids on skateboards had been on the roof of school, another kid taking video,” the police dispatch log stated. “Left after having words with caller (Dolliver). Left toward skate park on Mahan Dr., but stated they would be back.”

About 10 minutes later, the officer responding reported: “Kids located at skate board park. Advised. Closed.” There were no arrests.

After a rough previous school year of behavioral problems at Kelly, school officials had hoped that changes enacted for this past school year would improve the culture at the city’s only seventh- and eighth-grade school, attended by 700 students.

But the skateboarding incident was just the start in a school year that brought police to Kelly 64 times, not including medical calls, with 18 students arrested.

“We worked really hard at it,” Dolliver said. “It was a tough year.”

Norwich school officials and police said they are dealing with an escalation of disrespect for authority and peers by youths of increasingly younger age.

Police Chief Patrick Daley said the disrespect is not only at schools. He said officers in the past year have had more "negative interactions" with youths of middle school age on city streets and in parks.

"The culture that we live in now," Dolliver said, "there's a lack of respect. On the internet, you can say things without a filter. Then when the kids get together, it's, 'What did you say about me? What did you say about my mother?'"

School officials again hope for a turnaround this year, with three big changes coming to Kelly in August. New Principal Sheri Tanner starts Aug. 1 to head the conversion of Kelly back to a sixth- through eighth-grade school with a new STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) theme.

Teachers Memorial Sixth Grade Academy also will convert to a magnet middle school with a global studies theme for sixth- through eighth-grade students. That will split the city's middle school students again into two buildings, with the magnet themes providing more opportunities to socialize in structured ways through chorus, band, photography, a maker-space classroom and art, Dolliver said.

Frequent police visits

The Day requested police dispatch logs for all calls to Kelly Middle School and Norwich Free Academy for the 2017-18 school year. The entries provided brief descriptions of incidents and listed charges if students were arrested. For students under age 18, only the age and charges were given. The narratives were blacked out on some incidents, such as “sex offense.”

Daley said there were no sexual assaults or arrests for sexual assault at the schools. Several times, police are called to the schools to investigate possible sexual abuse outside school or in homes, Daley said.

In the 64 trips to Kelly, police arrested students 15 times, involving 18 students. Three students were charged with third-degree assault, 13 with breach of peace, two with carrying a dangerous weapon, including one charged with “carrying and sale of dangerous weapons,” three with threatening and two with marijuana possession.

On May 8, a 13-year-old Kelly student was charged with misuse of the E-911 system, reckless burning and breach of peace after the fire alarm was set off.

On May 31, a 14-year-old girl was charged with third-degree assault and breach of peace after allegedly jumping a boy and knocking him to the floor twice. The boy's father, Timothy Wilcox, filed a federal discrimination complaint against Norwich Public Schools for failing to protect his son, a special needs student, after the family made more than 30 complaints about bullying against the boy.

The U.S. Department of Education opened an investigation June 28.

Kelly dropped its school resource police officer in budget cuts two years ago but hired two "school safety officers." They patrol the hallways and try to direct students to class. Behavioral interventionists counsel disturbed students. "Sometimes they were full in there," Dolliver said.

School officials recently asked Chief Daley if one of the new grant-funded community policing positions could be assigned to Kelly, arguing that schools are an integral part of the community. But Daley said the officers are earmarked for high-crime neighborhoods. Instead, Norwich police ask officers to adopt a school for the year. Officers will visit their schools as time permits during their days.

Police calls to NFA

NFA, with about 2,300 students, has a Campus Safety Department with 12 full-time officers, a director, assistant director and administrative assistant. Many of the safety officers are law enforcement or corrections professionals. They don’t hesitate to call city police when situations escalate.

“Criminal or illegal behavior results in immediate police involvement,” NFA officials said in an email response to questions. “Norwich Free Academy considers fighting or assaultive behavior, threats or other forms of violence as a breach of peace.”

Not including numerous medical calls — for sports injuries, concerns about potential suicide risk and psychiatric assistance — and motor vehicle accidents, Norwich police responded to 64 calls to NFA’s main campus at 305 Broadway and three to the Sachem Campus at 90 Sachem St.

Police arrested 35 students in 24 incidents. Another incident, a fight between two students on June 11, was marked “refer to arrest” with no charges listed.

One disturbance at 7:23 a.m. on April 30 resulted in arrests of four students for breach of peace, with one also charged with sixth-degree larceny.

The arrests at NFA included 26 charges of breach of peace, 11 for third-degree assault, five for marijuana possession, two for possession of drug paraphernalia and two for sixth-degree larceny.

No arrests were made at NFA for threatening or weapons possession but police responded to several reports of students either threatening violence with weapons or reports of students posting photos with weapons. One student was found with a knife, which was confiscated by school security with no arrest. On Sept. 19, a call for a student threatening to get a gun and “shoot up school” closed with a note that the school “will handle it internally.”

Police also investigated several reports of “sexting,” or students posting sexually explicit photos, videos or text messages. No arrests were made in those calls.

NFA expelled 24 students, gave 176 out-of-school suspensions and 220 in-school suspensions, totals school officials said were “consistent” with recent years.

“Students and parents trust Campus Safety officers and regularly confide in them any concerns about safety,” Campus Safety Director Kevin Rodino said in an email.

The worst 10 percent

Altogether, there were 53 student arrests involving the two schools.

At Kelly, Dolliver said 10 percent of students are “the loudest, most aggressive” and rudest. Some ignored teachers, walked out of class or even walked out of school, prompting police calls. “Teachers can’t go chasing students,” Dolliver said. Students mouthed off to adults and to one another. Dolliver said some students planned with their friends to “roam together."

In spring, Dolliver assigned school Curriculum Director Thomas Baird to work at Kelly and held “suspension sweeps.” Anyone caught in the hallway without a pass was suspended automatically. One sweep led to 30 suspensions, she said.

Kelly had 415 total suspensions, 281 of them out-of-school suspensions, involving 179 different students, indicating numerous repeat offenders. Only five Kelly students were expelled during the year.

Angelo Callis, coordinator of Norwich Youth and Family Services, which provides several programs at Kelly to address behavior and also handles juvenile justice diversion programs for youth, agreed.

“The uptick in negative behaviors at schools, uptick in the level of drugs in the middle school and difficult behavior,” Callis said. “It feels like there’s an uptick. Kids are getting older younger.”

Callis was surprised at the few drug incidents involving police, although police did investigate discovery of liquid nicotine and vapor products several times. Those devices are small and difficult to detect, Callis said.

Norwich Youth and Family Services ran several prevention groups at Kelly this past year, including a tutoring program, a wellness program with yoga and karate, and a “Say it Straight” program on student values, Callis said. A Boys’ Council and Girls’ Circle also met at the school.

For the students who “participated fully,” he said, the programs were successful, with improved report cards and class attendance.

Juvenile justice diversion programs try to keep youths out of the criminal system. Erin Haggan, youth case worker, said Norwich Youth and Family Services served 14 Kelly students and 12 NFA students through the Juvenile Review Board and two Kelly families and three NFA families through the Families with Service Needs program.

Two sixth-graders at the Teachers Memorial sixth grade academy also went through the Juvenile Review Board and three families were in the Families with Service Needs program, Haggan said.

Change is coming

New Kelly Principal Tanner, who has been principal of a kindergarten through eighth-grade STEM magnet school in the north end of Hartford, put improving the culture as a primary goal for first month at Kelly. She said the magnet theme will help mitigate behavioral problems by letting students focus on their interests.

“I know what worked well and what didn’t,” Tanner said of the magnet transition, “and I can bring that to Kelly. My passion around STEAM is access to all, to bring the theme to everyone.”

Callis, the Youth Services coordinator, still would like to see school resource officers in the middle schools but said he is encouraged by the changes. Callis also urges adults in the mix not to give up on the kids.

“With a lot of these kids, I see them when they’re 16 years old and the lightbulb goes on and it just clicks,” Callis said. “If they’ve already developed an addiction, then we have a problem. If they’ve already been involved in the criminal system, then we have a problem. If they’re so far behind in school that they stop caring, then we have a problem.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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