WESTPORT — A nearly yearlong effort on behalf of Superintendent Colleen Palmer to fund two police officers for Westport’s middle schools came to a close this week after the Representative Town Meeting voted to reject funding for the request.

“I don’t want us to all sit back and think we solve a very complex problem by putting armed guards in the doors of our schools,” District 9 RTM member Kristin Schneeman said during the Tuesday meeting. “That’s oversimplifying, and I don’t think that’s what we’re saying. Sometimes the conversation. Sometimes the conversation sounds like it’s being reduced to that, like we’ve created a sort of superhero image of this person who’s going to prevent all bad things from happening in our schools.”

Schneeman, who voted against the proposal, said in the 30 years school police officers, or school resource officers, have been in practice nationwide, there has been little data-driven evidence produced substantiating their effectiveness.

Several of Schneeman’s colleagues echoed her hesitation to scale up the SRO program at the middle schools. The final RTM vote was 19-13-1, which translated to 59.3 percent support for the proposal, short of the 70 percent needed to overturn the Board of Finance’s September decision not to fund the officers.

“It certainly would have been much easier to abandon this effort far sooner in the process, because we’ve been at this a long time, but the Board of Education has the statutory responsibility to serve as the advocates for the best interest of its students, even when the process is difficult, the effort not appreciated by all, or politically not the easiest path taken,” Palmer told the group.

Last October, Palmer recommended adding police officers to Westport’s schools, though she did not include it in the normal budget process and instead called on the Board of Education to request a special appropriation.

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How RTM members voted on whether to fund middle school police officers

Final vote: 19 yea, 13 nea, 1 abstention. Needed 70 percent (supermajority) to pass, motion failed.

Yea:

Matthew Mandell, D1

Kristin Purcell, D1

Chris Tait, D1

Catherine Calise, D2

Louis Mall, D2

Jimmy Izzo, D3

Andrew Colabella, D4

Lisa Parrelli Gray, D4

Jeff Wieser, D4

Nicole Klein, D5

Greg Kraut, D5

Jessica Bram, D6

Brandi Briggs, D7

Lauren Karpf, D7

Ellen Lautenberg, D7

Lee Arthurs, D8

Wendy Batteau, D8

Carla Rea, D8

Velma Heller

Nea:

Jay Keenan, D2

Christine Meiers Schatz, D2

Arline Gertzoff, D3

Amy Kaplan, D3

Kristan Hamlin, D4

Karen Kramer, D5

Peter Gold, D5

Seth Braunstein, D6

Cathy Talmadge, D6

John Klinge, D7

Charles Carey, D9

Kristin Schneeman, D9

Lauren Soloff, D9

Abstain:

Lois Schine, D8

Absent:

Diane Cady, D1

Mark Friedman, D3

Monique Lions-Greenspan, D6

In March, the BOE approved the concept of school resource officers. Although the finance board voted to reappropriate money from the DARE program to fund an officer based at Staples High School, the board proved a bulwark to funding police in the middle schools. The finance board rejected funding for middle school SROs four times, despite being presented with several decreased prices for the program.

“Speaking as a parent and as someone who’s been actively involved in the budget process for the past year, I’m highly concerned how the BOE will absorb the cost of SROs into their operating budget,” Parent Teacher Association co-president Carolyn Caney said.

Every year, Westport parents see a list of potential budget cuts to school programs, staff and equipment, Caney said, adding she would like to know where possible budget cuts will be to accomodate the program before supporting funding for SROs.

“The case for SROs has been made pretty strongly by Dr. Palmer, but there are still a lot of concerns shared by many in the community. ... Opinions seem to me to be pretty evenly split, so for me that’s a good argument to slow down, to gain this first year of experience with the high school SRO, and to seek funding in the normal budget cycle for full disclosure and a full discussion of the impact that it will have on our overall budgets,” District 3 representative Amy Kaplan said.

The development of a full security plan is needed to determine whether SROs are the appropriate next step for Westport, District 2 representative Christine Meiers Schatz said, adding, “A good public policy is driven by sound data and, not by collective trauma.”

“It’s very hard to know, but I think I’m going to vote for this because anything we can do to protect our kids is something that’s important to do,” District 8 representative Wendy Batteau said.

Both District 1 member Matthew Mandell and District 6 member Seth Braunstein said they were not completely in support of adding SROs, but thought it may be a good idea to support the program now if Palmer and the BOE will include funding for the officers in the next budget season. At the end of the night, Mandell voted for the appropriation while Braunstein voted against.

On-campus officers reduce response time, should a school shooting occur, and build relationships with students that can be helpful in flagging potential issues, District 7’s Lauren Karpf and District 5’s Nicole Klein said.

“A guidance counselor only meets with select students, while an SRO sees everyone. We talk about problems in our schools. Here’s an adult focused on spotting and stopping these exact things. Seeing a child eating alone every day, getting picked on, acting out. This is someone out there with all the students gaining a pulse of the community and observing what takes place” Karpf said.

Staples High School senior Arthur Shapiro also spoke in favor of the proposal.

“Knowing there’s an active, on-duty defender officer that is around to protect the community just provides all of us with a sense of security. I simply do not see how it would not be worth it for whatever the amount of money to provide more Westport students with that same sense of security,” he said.

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