Connecticut lawmakers will consider setting some statewide ground rules for the use of school resource officers in response to statistics finding that students are arrested more often in schools with SROs than in those without them.
Sen. Gary Winfield, a New Haven Democrat who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday he proposed legislation building on a 2015 law which required districts with SROs to enter a memorandum of understanding to document that officer’s role at the school.
When lawmakers passed that law, Winfield said they did not flesh out what those MOUs should entail. It’s an oversight he hopes to correct this year.
“There’s some stuff we should’ve done that we didn’t do like creating a floor for those memorandums of understanding,” Winfield said. “There’s enough information out there for us to know that they’re problematic particularly in certain districts, however they might function in some folks’ districts. But we need to do something.”
The role of school-based police officers has generated debate in Connecticut and elsewhere as police in general have come under increased scrutiny.
Proponents of SROs argue that the officers make students and staff safer and help to deter incidents like school shootings. Opponents say there is little evidence to suggest schools with dedicated police are safer and point to reports documenting higher student arrest rates, particularly of students of color or those with disabilities.
Ahead of a planned press conference on Winfield’s legislation, Community First Coalition’s Care not Cops campaign promoted a recent study from Connecticut Voices for Children which found, among other things, that students at schools with SROs were more than three times more likely to be arrested than those at schools without them.
However, before initiating a legislative debate over whether SROs are helpful or detrimental, Winfield said he wanted to pass some ground rules.
“Instead of having the same battle where we make no progress, this seems like something that people who don’t even agree about whether we should have them or not should be able to find a space of agreement,” Winfield said. “Rather than spend the session spinning our wheels, let’s make some progress.”
He said the legislation should include elements like minimum training requirements for SROs and prohibitions on use of chemical agents like pepper spray or certain types of restraints. Another provision will require that either districts or schools publish the memorandum of understanding on their websites, he said.
Winfield said he would also like to explore whether the function of a school resource officer could be performed by some other school staff member like a teacher or a guidance counselor.
“An SRO wouldn’t necessarily have to be a cop which might help in certain instances for us to not get disproportionate minority contact, which leads to disproportionate minority confinement of young Black people,” he said.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Rep. Greg Howard, a police officer and Republican from Stonington, said what works in one school district may not work in another. However, Howard said he was disappointed that the press conference suggested his work with students was detrimental.
“One only must-read Senate Bill 119 and see that its intent is to harm the positive relationships formed between today’s youth and law enforcement providing a closer connection with young people and school staff. Policymakers should be fostering more constructive ways to mentor our youth, not target effective ways that help,” Howard said.