Funding for new officer at high school denied

FI-PoliceCiting a concern about the deployment of resources to deal with mental health services, the Board of Education has defeated funding of a second school resource officer (SRO) for the town’s public schools.

By a vote of two in favor to six opposed, the request for $168,620 was denied, but it could come forward again down the line, perhaps as soon as development of the 2014-15 school budget later this year. If the position had been approved, the budget line would have gone into the Police Department’s budget with the district working with police to secure funding from the town for it.

Superintendent of Schools William McKersie had recommended that the second officer be assigned to cover both Greenwich High School and the town’s three middle schools while also receiving on-the-job training from current SRO Carlos Franco, who is due to be cycled out in a few years under Greenwich Police Department protocol. This recommendation came in consultation with Chief of Police James Heavey and was done after a post-Newtown shooting review of the district’s safety and security procedures.

Through the process, Dr. McKersie had stressed this was part of a “team effort” with existing school mental health staff and not just getting extra security into GHS.

Board Chairman Leslie Moriarty said her vote would be no “for now” and noted the potential difficulty of asking for funding for this in the middle of the budget cycle. Left unsaid during the discussion were recent calls by the town’s Board of Estimate and Taxation to curb spending in light of cost overruns for the music instructional space and auditorium (MISA project; see story on page one). Ms. Moriarty did express her happiness with how the program has worked so far, though.

“I am extremely supportive of the SRO program and I think we have an effective model that has worked for the high school,” Ms. Moriarty said.

Board member Peter von Braun referred to a conversation about the new SRO at a meeting earlier last month and said he had been “disturbed” by the fact that there was no discussion of the causality of incidents. He touched on the large amount of academic resources on the subject and said one thing that stood out was how the state judged its need for prison cells based on the numbers of students who failed a fourth grade reading test.

“There’s an enormous correlation between lack of success in school and the development of delinquent behavior,” Mr. von Braun said. “If the fourth grade reading test is a way of forecasting prison cell need, we need to start intervention a hell of a lot earlier. One of the problems is the ineffectiveness of some of our programs in bringing the kids at risk along in the educational process so they don’t become alienated and feel rejected and begin adopting behavior that is contrary to what the standards are for school attendance. Before we bring in another policeman I think we ought to look at causality and figure out a way to deal with that, and I think we ought to examine at the high school our resources in terms of psychologists and social workers and those dealing with intervention and most particularly look at the language capabilities of that staff.”

Mr. von Braun said he didn’t mind having an SRO for the middle schools, but the fact that the fourth grade reading test was being used as a mark meant that resources had to be used for intervention at an earlier age.

Board Vice Chairman Barbara O’Neill agreed, saying the focus should be on resources for closing the achievement gap and reallocation of mental health personnel to make sure there was “sufficient help” starting in the elementary schools. She also stressed the need for hiring bilingual staff for mental health services.

“As much as I respect the very difficult job of a law enforcement person, I think we need to focus on what’s in our control right now in terms of education,” Ms. O’Neill said.

There were also concerns about intervention at early ages and mentoring. Board member Jennifer Dayton wanted to know how the SRO was able to work with existing services to respond to mental health issues, and Mary Forde, director of pupil personnel services and special education for the district, said the SRO “supports what’s going on in terms of students who are engaging in behaviors that are not what we would hope they would be.” Ms. Forde said there are three guidance counselors, a half-time psychologist and a full-time social worker in every one of GHS’s student houses as well as a pupil review team.

But Ms. Dayton pressed, asking what agencies outside the school existed that could help. Ms. Forde replied that the district worked with substance abuse groups, and Christopher Winters, GHS headmaster, added that there are “extensive partnerships” in place.

“We are building them daily,” Mr. Winters said, including the United Way of Greenwich’s Youth Services Division, which offers access to many town agencies. “We take this very seriously. There’s a lot of resources out there, and part of our job is connecting students with needs to those resources.”

Mr. Winters said there would be an “agency fair” at GHS near the end of the school year with local town resources setting up to do outreach to the students and staff with the help of school mental health professionals.

“It’s an attempt to deal with issues — yes, in a legal way, but not in a way that pins students in a legal way,” Dr. McKersie added in regard to the partnerships in place.

Board member Nancy Kail spoke in favor of the addition of a new SRO, saying it didn’t preclude concentration in any of the areas her colleagues had brought up and noting the track record of success for the program at GHS. She and board member Adriana Ospina were the two votes in favor of it.

“It’s a great example of cooperation of different bodies in town,” Ms. Kail said. “It’s not only the administration saying this program has been successful and needs to be expanded, it’s our Police Department and other town agencies.”

Ms. Ospina said she had based her vote on the recommendations of the school and mental health officials who believe the program is working in Greenwich.

 

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