Milford reports school resource officers responding more, but making fewer arrests

Harborside Middle School in Milford is shown in this file photo. 

Harborside Middle School in Milford is shown in this file photo. 

Saul Flores/Hearst Connecticut Media

MILFORD — Even as school resource officers in the city have increased the number of responses, the number of arrests in the district has declined, according to Superintendent Anna Cutaia. This is an indication of a successful partnership between schools and police, she said.

"Milford Public Schools is incredibly appreciative of our partnership with our police department and our fire department," Cutaia said. She added the schools are committed to prevention, having security layers and partnerships with first responders.

"It takes everyone to make a successful school safety and security program, and over the years, we have proven that without a doubt here in Milford," said Jeffrey Nielsen, Milford Public Schools director of school safety and security.

There are five SROs in the school districts: Foran High School, Jonathan Law High School, East Shore Middle School, West Shore Middle School, and one officer for  Harborside Middle School and The Academy.

Steve Loschiavo, East Shore Middle School SRO, in a recent video presentation to the school board, said the role of the SRO is to be a law enforcement officer, counselor and educator/mentor.

"I think the most important thing about this job is relationship building, not only with faculty and staff but with the students and their families," he said.

The SRO program has been part of the Milford School District since 2013, when it launched as a part-time program.

The year prior, in 2012, police Capt. Garon DelMonte said Milford police responded to the schools 712 times and made 28 arrests.

In 2013, he said, police responded to double the number of calls within the school. He attributed that to the relationships built up between school resource officers and building staff.

"These calls for service can be conversations with students, meetings with families, conferences, restorative circles, diversion meetings, sitting in with principals to mediate an issue in the building or the traditional law enforcement response responding to a fight or a breach of peace," he said.

In the 2013-14 school year there were 1,576 calls for service, which resulted in 22 arrests. The statistics stayed about the same during the 2014-15 school year.

The number of responses continued to increase, topping out at 1,493 calls in 2018-19 and six arrests that year. The following year, which was partially remote due to the COVID-19 pandemic, school officers responded to 669 calls and made 14 arrests. In 2021-23, the call number increased to 1,213 but arrests dropped to 13. Last year Milford SROs responded to 1,025 calls, with five arrests.

Starting in 2016, the program introduced the juvenile diversion program, DelMonte said.

"More often than not, juveniles are diverted away from the criminal justice system, which is a good thing," he said. "So we could do that in-house, with our social workers or police officers. Or when they go to juvenile court, they can be diverted judicially through the juvenile review board."

In the program's first year, it resulted in half of the school system's 16 arrests being diverted, he said. In the years since the success rate has varied from 20 percent in 2019-20, to 100 percent in 2019-19, when all six arrests went to the diversion program, DelMonte said.

"Our goal with our diversion plan is to look at the root cause of the behavior. It's like a restorative circle with police officers involved," he said. "We look at the behavior that got them in trouble. How they could prevent it from happening again and what they learned from it. It's been pretty successful."

The resource officers also help in meeting the needs of the student's mental health, he said. DelMonte said social media is driving the need for mental health services. Many students bring social media posts to the attention of SROs, he said.

Reacclimating to a school environment after the COVID-forced remote learning is also an ongoing issue for students, he said.

"I think there's some struggle there, and some home lives have struggled through the pandemic," he said. "I think there are some stressers outside of the school buildings that have bled into the school buildings, but our SROs have avenues now that can reach beyond the school walls and help students and families."

DelMonte said during the pandemic, some families experienced housing instability, and were trying to find a permanent residence. The SROs worked with school social workers in those cases, he said.