NEW HAVEN CT Oct 18 2016 Derrick Powell said having a loaded pistol pointed to his forehead by a student was one of the most frightening moments he’s had as a school security officer.
“We’d already taken one gun off of this student. The principal and I brought him into a room and I searched him again,” said Powell, a Hillhouse High School graduate.
“As I was searching him, he turned around and pulled a .380 (pistol) from under his hoodie and stuck it to my forehead and politely asked me to back up,” Powell said.
Powell, 49, said in his 29 years on the job, he has confiscated more than 10 handguns and over a 100 knives from students.
Incidents like these and others are among some of the daily situations security officers say they encounter while working in schools to protect students, staff and administrators.
While officers are bound to perform certain duties to maintain order, they also serve as role models.
“A lot of the parents we know, we went to school with them or now our children go to school with their children,” said 25-year veteran Starr Birt, who is also a security supervisor. “If they come into school irate, we have a tendency to pull them to the side and calm them down.”
“Students relate to us because we have a good rapport with them and their parents.”
According to Birt, violence among students tends not to escalate because of off-campus relationships with officers.
“They see us in the community after school, we know their families,” said Birt, who is also a city native and a former police officer.
“If there is a problem, they usually seek us first,” she said. “Most of the kids respond to us well; we’re more than security officers to many of these students.”
The district has 21,500 students enrolled in 48 schools, according to its website.
School security officers, according to Powell, were established in the late 1970s after students robbed a school store at Wilbur Cross High School.
It was that incident, said Birt, “that actually motivated the powers (that) be to initiate some type of security for the district.”
But incidents around the nation also draw attention, such as the recent school shooting of a 6-year-old boy at a South Carolina school, and Director of School Security Thaddeus Reddish said his primary focus is protecting the health and safety of students, staff and visitors.
“We’re adopting a community security services environment by engaging security officers, parents, community leaders and school administrators in a problem-solving partnership,” said Reddish, 51, a 22-year veteran of the New Haven Police Department who retired as an assistant police chief.
“The central mission of this partnership,” he said, “is student success. When students succeed, the entire community succeeds.”
Reddish said other objectives the department wants to implement in schools include: a gun safety awareness week for all elementary schools; creating a safety and security committee in each school; and bridging the gap between security personnel and the city Police Department.
Superintendent of Schools Garth Harries said Reddish is prepared to respond to any potential issues in the schools involving students.
“Our officers are key to ensuring the continued safety of each building and promoting healthy and welcoming school climates,” said Harries.
“Our security team is the front line to schools’ safety,” he said. “It’s important that our staff and families work with them so they are able to do what’s best for the schools.”
Ongoing communication with families is an important measure to promoting students’ well-being and preventing school violence.
Parent LeShae Payton, whose eighth-grade daughter attends Engineering and Science University Magnet School, said school security is extremely important during these times.
“We are dealing with senseless acts of violence that have been directed toward school children,” said Payton, who is a social service professional.
“I think security measures can be heightened,” she said. “I do appreciate the general phone calls and emails informing me of some situations that occur during school.”
Yet, while the issue of school safety has been a major concern for parents and local, state and federal officials, some district security officers believe their roles in schools are taken for granted.
Powell said there are challenges among officers and some administrators in schools.
“In the early years, we were a presence with the administration in the schools; we worked hand and hand with them,” said Powell.
However, over the years, Powell said as administrators became younger, the respect for security officers has diminished.
“We’re on the bottom of the chain with some of them; (but) we’re not guards, we’re (security) officers,” he said.
According to the Center for Disease Control, homicide rates in 2010 among African-American males ages 10-24 were 51.5 per 100,000 and exceeded those of Hispanic males 13.5 per 100,000. Non-Hispanic, while white males in the same age group were 2.9 per 100,000.
Powell said he has been to at least 100 funerals of students.
“If there is a shooting or homicide in the city, it’s a 98 percent chance that they have come in contact with me or one of our officers,” he said. Some of the training officers receive are for mental disorder, autism, active shooting and drug and gang training.
Despite the rigorous training officers endure before joining the department, Powell said officers experience post-traumatic stress after dealing with crisis situations.
“After a shooting or a homicide, no one bothers to check to see how things affect us,” said Powell. “I can’t recall a time where city leadership have ever walked into these buildings and acknowledged the work we’ve done.”
But Hillhouse High School Principal Glen Worthy can attest to the dedication and commitment of officers Powell and Birt.
Worthy, 51, who grew up in the Newhallville section of the city, said the two officers collaborate well with administration to ensure the safety of schools.
“As the school’s new principal , I lean on officer Powell, because he has a lot of knowledge and history about the trouble spots in and around our school,,” said Worthy, a Wilbur Cross High School graduate.
“He was instrumental in helping me create a plan to make sure everyone in the building is safe,” he said.
School security is paramount, said King Robinson Magnet School Principal Joseph H. Johnson, a Howard University graduate and a member of the Kappa Psi chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc.
He said the officers who serve his school are a vital part of the school’s team.
“They engage students in classrooms, hallways and the cafeteria. They do their best to keep kids out of situations that may lead to their involvement,” said Johnson, 40, whose head security officer at the school is a former police officer.
Regarding maintaining a peaceful and safe school environment, Johnson said, “I couldn’t do it without them.”
There are ways to reduce some violence in schools, according to Reddish. “Officers have to be connected to the community,” he said.
Reddish said 95 percent of his officers working in the district live or have connections in the city.
“The students love our officers. I see this when I walk into these schools,” said Reddish, who also grew up in the Newhallville section of the city.
“This unit is truly community-based security,” he said. “They’re part of the city, they’re part of these kids lives; it’s one reason why I wanted this job.”
New Light High School administrator Paul Camarco agrees that security officers are more than just about ensuring the safety of the building, students and staff. He said that at New Light, Officer Detrica Stewart is building positive relationships with students.
“She is often the first friendly face students, staff and the public see in the morning. She greets the students and staff and takes the temperature of the day,” said Camarco, 38. “She gauges who is having a great day and who might need some help, counseling or extra attention.”
Throughout the school day, Camarco said, Stewart is a welcome ear for the student to decompress or share life events.
“She is also the first to help calm a student if they are having a particularly tough moment. “
New Haven Register
New Haven Register