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Norwich school, police leaders outline plans for middle school resource officers

Norwich — If resource officers return to the city's middle schools, they would have a lengthy list of duties set by school and police leaders: improve school safety, reduce suspensions and build trust with youths.

The Board of Education on Jan. 11 directed Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow to meet with police Chief Patrick Daley to put together a plan to restore the officers to the schools.

But the concept has raised concerns. Two board members want assurances that the officers would not steer youth into the criminal justice system.

As police and school leaders were meeting late last week to iron out the proposal, the Norwich NAACP Executive Committee also met to articulate members’ concerns. Norwich NAACP President Shiela Hayes will send a letter to the Board of Education ahead of the board's meeting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 8, at Kelly Middle School auditorium. Public comment also will be taken prior to the board's discussion of the issue.

Hayes said among the NAACP’s concerns was the quickness of the vote at the January meeting without prior discussion. She said it seems to be in response to recent jumps in behavioral issues and disciplinary problems, while the school system lacks classroom interventionists and behavioral therapists.

Hayes said when Norwich schools had SROs several years ago, before they were eliminated in budget cuts, they were community resource officers for students, families and school staff. She wants to ensure the new officers won't view student behavioral issues solely through a lens of discipline and referrals to the city's Juvenile Review Board.

“Are the SROs being looked at to replace interventionists and behavioralists?” Hayes asked.

Police Chief Daley, former SRO Lt. Anthony Gomes, Stringfellow and Assistant Superintendent Tamara Gloster met Thursday to work out logistics and goals for the new program.

They will propose hiring one SRO for the Kelly STEAM Magnet Middle School and one for Teachers’ Memorial Global Studies Magnet Middle School. One of the officers also will be asked to become familiar with four elementary schools, and the other will have three elementary schools and the preschool program, Stringfellow said.

"This year, it's just to get a foot in the door," Daley said. "Over the summer, we'll work on a more structured program."

The duties and goals are many, Daley and Stringfellow said. Stringfellow said each officer should be: “an educator, informal counselor or mentor and a law enforcement officer.”

Over time, Stringfellow will look for declines in juvenile arrests, chronic absenteeism, out-of-classroom behavior referrals, expulsions and suspensions. She would like the officers to show up at times at school bus stops and on buses.

On the education side, Stringfellow wants programs on bullying prevention, internet and social media safety, alcohol and drug prevention and on what items are prohibited on school grounds.

Daley said officers also could offer programs on traffic safety, bicycle and especially scooter safety, an issue prevalent on city streets.

Stringfellow will ask that the officers qualify to train school staff in the ALICE — Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate — emergency preparedness program. She said it would avoid the cost to hire outside trainers for the program. SROs also should serve on their schools’ crisis response teams.

Stringfellow would want the officers to wear full police uniforms and drive marked cruisers. “I want them to look like police officers,” she said.

The Norwich school budget would pay the full cost for the rest of this school year, estimated at $90,000 to $100,000 from March 1 through June, with savings from substitute teacher and vacant teaching positions the district hasn't been able to fill, Stringfellow said.

The cost would be placed in the regular operating budget for the 2022-23 school year. Normally, the officers would work in the school system year-round, but Stringfellow said police would want them to return to regular duty this summer to help ease COVID-19 staff shortages. The budget would have to reflect the split, she said.

If the board approves the plan, Daley will post the positions immediately. He said some officers already have completed the National Association of School Resource Officers training program. He is confident the positions can be filled in-house, and he then would seek to replace them with new hires.

“We will get someone from the ranks,” Daley said. “We have a lot of people who are interested in working with our youths.”

Stringfellow and Gloster would serve on the selection committee.

Stringfellow hopes the selected officers can reflect the district's demographics — 71% of Norwich students are Black, Indigenous, or people of color, and 19% of students are English language learners.

“It would be ideal for one or both to be bilingual,” she said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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