Finance board votes down school police
WESTPORT — A 10-month-long effort to bring multiple police officers to Westport schools came to an end Wednesday after the Board of Finance voted against funding the officers, citing hesitations about the cost, effectiveness and role of police officers in the schools.
“It’s all about prevention. When you have accidents in a factory — and I ran large factories in Europe — you don’t hire more nurses, you stop the accidents. And I think that’s the thinking we need to have here,” finance Chairman Brian Stern said, noting he believes additional school resource officers may not accomplish the prevention work, which studies from past shootings, including in Newtown, show is necessary to avoid massacres at school.
Stern, a Democrat, voted against the $320,000 appropriation for two school resource officers for the upcoming school year. Also voting against the plan were Democrats Lee Caney and Sheri Gordon, and Republican James Westphal. Republicans Andrea Moore and Michael Rea voted in favor of funding the two officers.
The BOF previously voted to approve reappropriating money from the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, which will be dissolved, to fund an SRO at the high school for the upcoming year.
“We’re disappointed with the outcome of the decision of the Board of Finance,” Board of Education Acting Chair Jeannie Smith said after the meeting.
On Monday night, the school board unanimously voted to seek funding for two additional SROs that would be based at the middle schools and attend to the elementary schools, with the third SRO (the reappropriated D.A.R.E. officer) based at Staples High School.
“Our public spaces today have more security. Schools have more security. It’s part of the nature of education. It’s part of the cost of doing business,” Superintendent Colleen Palmer said to the BOF at the July 11 meeting, reiterating a pitch for in favor of SROs she first presented to the Board of Education in October.
Westport is the only school system in its District Reference Group — which includes Fairfield, Wilton, Weston, and Norwalk — that does not have a school-based law enforcement officer, Palmer said.
Rea agreed with Palmer’s call for SROs, saying they would primarily be at the schools for lethal means, that is, to disable a shooter in the event of a school shooting. The majority of other members, however, were more skeptical about the proposal.
Police officers in the schools may lead to other issues, such as an increase in juvenile arrests, Gordon said. She said she was not convinced by the research into the effectiveness of SROs, especially because in some cases, such as the May shooting at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, an on-site police officer was unable to prevent fatalities.
Gordon called on the board to defer a decision on funding two additional SROs and start with the one at the high school to test out the program.
“Security does not start and end with an SRO,” Gordon said, adding the district should continue to invest in security infrastructure and technology that can help to prevent school shootings.
If a significant purpose of the SROs is to serve as a person students can alert when they hear about shooting threats, then a psychologist may better fit that role, especially at the middle school level, Caney said. She said kids may feel more comfortable speaking to a psychologist than a police officer.
“We basically have the equivalent of a Parkland (Florida shooting) every three days in suicides, in traffic deaths and in homicides,” Westphal said, citing national studies that show more students die of these causes than multifatality school shootings, which he said average one a year.
Resident Robert Harrington said the finance board has a moral duty to act upon the recommendation of the superintendent and Chief of Police Foti Koskinas, who both supported the proposal for two additional officers.
Several meeting attendees, including RTM members Peter Gold and Kristan Hamlin, voiced hesitation about funding two additional officers, saying there may be cheaper and more effective options for school security than SROs.
“I’m not sure what their role is that’s not already being done. If we can train police officers to be essentially social workers, why don’t we just hire social workers? I don’t understand that,” Gold said.
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