Forging a School-Police Relationship to Decrease Student Arrests By John Rosiak, Principal, Prevention Partnerships, Rosiak Associates, LLC
ridgeport School Arrests, Suspensions Down” declared a July 2015 headline in the Connecticut Post.1 Communities across the United States are seeing similar results as they try to decrease “school exclusion” discipline methods such as school-based arrests, expulsions, and suspensions. But, how can such a decrease happen? A partnership between the Bridgeport, Connecticut, Police Department and the public schools in its jurisdiction has led to an evidence-
58 THE POLICE CHIEF/SEPTEMBER 2016
based approach that helps to divert students from justice system involvement and brings down student arrests.
The Bridgeport Experience
Bridgeport is a small city of about 150,000 residents, many of whom are people of color. About one in five Bridgeport families lives below the poverty line. The city’s violent crime rate exceeds both those of the state and the United States overall.
At the beginning of the 21st century, Bridgeport—like many communities—was concerned about the number of students who were arrested in schools. The community was also alarmed at how many students were being suspended and expelled. These school exclusion actions particularly alarmed community leaders because many of the offenses were relatively minor, such as fighting or talking back. In the “old days,” these offenses would not have resulted in suspension or expulsion, let alone arrests. Almost every day, patrol officers from the police department were spending valuable time responding to fights that occurred at school dismissal. Responding to these calls tied up the patrol officers and the K-9 unit and prevented them from responding to other calls. Something had to change. That much-needed change happened when leaders in Bridgeport looked critically at the school-law enforcement partnership and determined that such a partnership can help http://www.policechiefmagazine.org
keep students out of the juvenile justice system when it does these four things: 1. Defines the roles of school resource officers (SROs), security guards, and school administrators. 2. Uses a thorough process to choose SROs and security guards. 3. Ensures SROs and security guards are well-trained in how to divert youth from the justice system. 4. Establishes strong and clear policies on supportive school discipline and diversion.
Changes began to occur the way they often do—through effective leadership. The police chief and school district superintendent worked together to come up with a new approach that redefined the roles of the police and the school staff. They developed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) that outlined the roles of the SROs and school personnel and how they could work more closely together. The initial phase looked at security issues at the schools. One of the first things the police department did to carry out their public safety role was house officers on campus, dividing the SROs equally among all 46 schools in the city, which increased the visibility of the officers and decreased the response time of SROs to school crises that demanded their presence. The police worked with the public facilities director of the schools to install cameras throughout the school buildings to monitor what was going on, as well as to deter crime by letting people know that the cameras were now present. They also installed heavy-duty security access doors to prevent unauthorized access to school buildings. In addition to surveillance and targethardening strategies, police and school leadership took a new look at the roles that SROs, school security staff, and school administrators play. Leadership in the police department wanted to spend its time and resources to make the school environment safe for students and staff. As Lieutenant Paul Grech, supervisor of the School Police and Security Division—a sub-division of the department’s Community Policing Division—puts it: “Perception is critically important. If students don’t feel safe, they are not going to be able to learn.”2 The police department knew that it wanted its SROs to spend more time at one of their most important tasks—building relationships with students. The department found that better relationships with students dramatically increased the perceptions of safety. SRO presence on campus fulfills the “law enforcement role” of the SROs because officers are ready to respond to any public safety issue that may arise. The security role is carried out with the SROs from the different schools, ready to support each other as http://www.policechiefmagazine.org
THE POLICE CHIEF/SEPTEMBER 2016 59
needed. The school security staff—which is trained with and by the police department— reports to the police lieutenant in command. The public safety effort is coordinated by Bridgeport Police Department, which makes it more organized, efficient, and consistent. As an example of this coordination, if a fight occurs, both the school security guards and the SROs are trained to not make an arrest. But Lt. Grech makes it clear that the students do NOT get a free pass. Each situation is different. Our job is to respond to what that student needs to change his or her behavior. The police and school staff work to hold students accountable by providing a variety of consequences3 School security and administrators may do mediation. They get the family involved, if needed. The school staff or the SROs may refer the youth to the Juvenile Review Board, which is a diversion program run by a local umbrella organization that has dozens of resources at its disposal. The idea is to match a student with the services and consequences that are most appropriate to change the behavior. Bridgeport SROs do not teach classes on a regular basis like their counterparts in some other districts, but they do carry out the “educator role” of the SRO triad on an as-needed basis, such as making sure that students understand the laws and dangers inherent in contemporary issues like sexting and bullying. The “informal counselor-mentor role” is a major component for both the SROs and the school security guards. They work together to develop relationships with students they see every day, which is the difference between officers who work in schools and patrol officers on the street who do not have the same chance to build relationships. By “building trust and legitimacy”— one of the pillars of reform presented in the Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing—SROs (and security staff) are in a better position to prevent problems before they occur.4 For example, Bridgeport police officers were able to safely diffuse a situation when a student brought a semi-automatic handgun to school because another student shared this information with an SRO he trusted.5
department. Interested officers are asked to outline their skills and why they want to be an SRO. The chief assembles an interview panel, comprising the deputy chief, a captain, and union president. The panel speaks to the candidates’ supervisors and researches their background for suitability. The top three candidates are then interviewed by the chief, who makes the decision. School security guards are chosen from the pool of candidates who have state certification to be a security officer, and a C.H.I.P. card, which attests to the candidate’s physical abilities to do the job.
Initially—to ensure that the position is a good fit—candidates are hired on a part-time basis. They have a period of training and shadow a full-time guard. When a full-time school security guard position opens, the lead guards, SROs, and school administrators are interviewed about the performance of the part-time guard to determine if he or she should be offered the full-time position. Carefully selecting the SROs and security guards who will deal with the same students every day puts the officers and guards in a better position to get to the root causes of problems. They know how to handle situations
Choosing the right officers
Lt. Grech emphasizes that Bridgeport’s approach would not work without the right SROs and security guards in place. People applying for these positions understand the diversion philosophy agreed upon by the police department and the school district. As Lt. Grech notes, “This work takes a special officer. They have to buy into the approach.”6 The police department has a strict screening process for SROs and security guards. Before the police department selects an SRO, it puts out a letter of interest to the whole http://www.policechiefmagazine.org
THE POLICE CHIEF/SEPTEMBER 2016 61
involving these students. For example, if there is a problem after school involving a student, the SROs or guards will pull that student aside individually the next day to find out what is going on. Dealing with a student individually allows the youth to “save face,” which decreases the likelihood that the student will act up in front of their peers.
Training for Diversion
To help provide seamless service, SROs and school security guards are given similar training. For example, those in both positions are trained in Crisis Intervention Team training, which is offered twice a year. Both also undergo active shooter training and National Incident Management System (NIMS) training, so the guards know how the SROs and other officers responding will react to different situations. To support the diversion role, both groups are trained in “verbal judo” de-escalation training. All of the school security guards also receive training in lockdown procedures, emergency evacuations, first aid, AED, preventing cyberbullying and sexting, social media, report writing, cultural awareness, and identifying suspicious activities. Newly trained SROs accompany a certified SRO for a few weeks “to start fostering relationships with students and staff.”7 The SRO sergeant meets daily with a new SRO to ensure the officer is a good fit with the
62 THE POLICE CHIEF/SEPTEMBER 2016
department’s philosophy. After new school security guards are chosen and trained, they shadow full-time guards for three weeks before being rotated to a different school. According to Interim Superintendent Frances Rabinowitz, who inherited the unusual arrangement of the police department overseeing school security, school security staff members are trained better than ever. Arrests at school are down because the staff, along with the SROs, know how to intervene in other ways. And, students respond well to security officers because they [the officers] are better trained.8
The police department and school have an MOA that places both the SROs and the school security guards under the command of the Bridgeport Police Department. The MOA strives to ensure a consistent response to incidents of student misbehavior, clarify the role of law enforcement in school disciplinary matters, and reduce involvement of police and court agencies for misconduct at school and school-related events.9 The MOA states that “School Resource Officers will not be responsible for student discipline or enforcement of school rules.”10 To ensure that the effort is evidence based, the MOA spells out the data collection and data monitoring requirements, and an
annual report includes recommendations for program improvements. The MOA also clarifies roles and the police department’s processes to provide school security and police officers with additional training, equipment, and backup.
“Data collection and monitoring” is included in the MOA as a separate section, which states “[t]he parties agree to provide baseline data for comparison purposes and regularly collect, share, monitor, and report data resulting from the implementation of this agreement.”11 On a monthly basis, the school collects data on the number and types of disciplinary actions, numbers and demographics of students involved, and referrals to the police. In turn, the police department tracks the number and types of school incidents for which police incident reports are initiated. Parents, teachers, and administrators support this effort for the simple reason that Bridgeport’s approach of having the police department provide training and supervision in this new philosophy for both the SROs and school security has produced positive results. Outcome data show that Bridgeport schools have experienced a large decrease in arrests at school due to the strong partnership and consistent support for diversion.12
The approach, which also involves juvenile probation officers, a juvenile review board, and other community agencies, has produced research showing that the partnership resulted in the number of arrests made at the public schools dropping from 207 in 2010–2011 to 43 in 2014–2015—a decrease of nearly 80 percent in four years.13 Not only are arrests at schools down, but Superintendent Rabinowitz also points out that, “Last year, suspensions were reduced by close to 600. Results are quelling critics.”14 Additional research data from the police department show that the department has provided shorter response time to incidents occurring at school. And, because of the way they deploy SROs and school security guards, the arrangement has reduced costs by putting officers and guards where they are needed and when they are needed. But, as Lt. Grech observes, “The most important thing is that this is about the safety of the kids.”15
While it wasn’t easy to set up the current approach, strong leadership and persistence has paid off. The most difficult and most important ingredient was building and maintaining relationships—relationships between the police department and school leadership; relationships with the board of education; and, most importantly, relationships between the SROs and security guards and students. Clarifying the roles of SROs, security guards, and school administrators is critical in a partnership such as the one in Bridgeport, and having the right SROs and school security guards, who are well chosen and well trained to divert youth to the right services that match their needs, is essential for success. Finally, a strong MOA that has the support of leadership and the rest of the community provides a foundation for success. As Lt. Grech says, “We are in it together to get it done.”16 v
Grech, telephone conversation, January 22, 2016. Ibid. 8 Frances Rabinowitz (interim superintendent of schools, Bridgeport, Connecticut), telephone conversation with John Rosiak, February 26, 2016. 9 Bridgeport Public Schools and Bridgeport Police Department, Memorandum of Agreement, July 2012, https://www.bridgeportedu .com/News/2015-2016/MemorandumAgreement(BPS-BPT_Police).pdf (accessed July 25, 2016). 10 Ibid. 11 Ibid. 12 Bridgeport Police Department, internal data, 2016. 13 Ibid. 14 Rabinowitz, telephone conversation, February 26, 2016. 15 Grech, telephone conversation, January 26, 2016. 16 Ibid. 6 7
NATIONAL RESOURCE ON SCHOOL JUSTICE PARTNERHIPS The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) is partnering with the IACP, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, the National Association of State Boards of Education, and the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice to establish and operate a National Resource Center on School Justice Partnerships, which will provide research, training, and technical assistance to develop effective school/justice policies and practice. Learn more: www.theiacp.org/schooljusticepartnership.
John Rosiak is a safe schools trainer and facilitator who works in multi-disciplinary settings helping law enforcement, juvenile justice, education, and mental health leaders collaborate to keep youth in school and out of justice system involvement. John has worked in a variety of positions for over 30 years, including directing crime, substance abuse, and violence prevention efforts on the local, national, and international levels. He has led training for police chiefs and sheriffs in support of community policing and delivered drug, violence, and bullying prevention workshops for thousands of law enforcement officers, juvenile justice representatives, and others working with youth. For more information, contact him at john@rosiak associates.com.
Notes: 1 Linda Conner Lambeck, “Bridgeport School Arrests, Suspensions Down,” Connecticut Post, July 5, 2015, http://www.ctpost.com/news/ article/Bridgeport-school-arrests-suspensions-down-6361931.php (accessed July 25, 2016). 2 Paul Grech (lieutenant, Bridgeport, Connecticut, Police Department), telephone conversation with John Rosiak, January 22, 2016. 3 Ibid. 4 The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (Washington, D.C.: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2015), http://www .cops.usdoj.gov/pdf/taskforce/taskforce_finalreport.pdf (accessed July 25, 2016). 5 Grech, telephone conversation, December 8, 2015. http://www.policechiefmagazine.org
THE POLICE CHIEF/SEPTEMBER 2016 63
School-police relations can drive down student arrests