Several residents at budget hearing ask aldermen to allocate money for school police officers

Several residents at a public budget hearing Thursday evening said they want the city to hire police officers to work in the city schools.

Buddy Prete told the Board of Aldermen, who are about to begin reviewing budget requests for 2013-14, that he would like the city to fund school resource officers to protect students and to help out on city patrols when school is not in session.

School resource officers, also known as SROs, are armed police officers who work in the schools.

After the tragic shootings in Newtown, school officials said they want to hire five SROs to work in Milford’s schools. City leaders said they support the idea, but so far money hasn’t been earmarked in the proposed budget to hire them.

Police Chief Keith Mello has found about $100,000 he said could be used for the new officers, but it is estimated they would cost the city about $350,000.

“I support the SROs,” Prete said, adding they will be “vital” in the schools.

He also said, “Use of these officers weekends and in the summer downtown is necessary.”

Former Alderman Thomas Beirne spoke out for the SROs also, and he said he was discouraged that more people didn’t show up to make the same request.

Only about a dozen people attended Thursday night’s hearing, which is a chance for residents to voice their opinions about the city and school budget proposals. Only a handful spoke.

“People don’t seem to care,” Beirne said, speculating that apathy may be one reason for the country’s woes.

With the lack of public comment in favor of SROs, Beirne said the aldermen have to make the right decision.

“The purpose of government is to protect the people,” Beirne said, adding that SROs are more than just police officers who work in the schools. They also are there as mentors and to help spot children who may need counseling, he said.

Beirne subtly criticized the manner in which city officials have been trying to come up with money to pay for the officers. So far, without any commitment for funding, the police chief has found funds in several areas that he said could be diverted to the program.

The city and school board should allocate the funds “instead of having the chief go out and sell cookies to raise the money,” Beirne said. He said he believes the Board of Education can find the money within its budget to pay for the program on an ongoing basis and should make the SROs part of the annual school budget.

Laura Fucci, a local mother, also spoke about the SRO program at the budget hearing, but she didn’t focus on the funding, rather on the training.

Fucci said that any SRO training should include lessons on how to identify and communicate with autistic children. She said children with autism learn differently and may not understand what is implied by a change of tone or in body language.

She said the number of children with autism has increased dramatically in 20 years and that it is important that officers hired to work in the schools understand these children.