student safety issue Finance board rejects school police for 4th time
WESTPORT — After four votes, the finance board’s answer remains the same: no funding for additional police officers at Westport’s middle schools.
Earlier this year, upon the recommendation of the Board of Education, the Board of Finance voted to reappropriate money from the DARE program to fund a school resource officer based at Staples High School. However, the BOF has held its ground against funding two police officers to be housed at the middle schools.
“It’s not in any way that I’m anti-security and it’s not that I don’t believe in the SRO program, but I’d like to start slowly. I’d like to make sure Westport parents are comfortable with what’s going on, and also work with the parents at the middle,” BOF member Sheri Gordon said at the Sept. 13 meeting. Gordon voted down the proposal, along with fellow BOF members Lee Caney, Brian Stern, James Westphal and Nancie Dupier, who was elected to the board last month.
Michael Rea and Andrea Lawrence were the lone members to vote in favor of the proposal, following a similar vote pattern from the previous three votes.
The original request to fund the middle school-based SROs came before the BOF in July in the form of a $320,000 appropriation, but the dollar request was decreased over time. At the Sept. 13 meeting, $185,000 was requested to fund the officers solely in overtime pay from the police department.
“I’m concerned the objective has been set, as the SRO and people are forgetting what’s the problem, and there are many different solutions. Let’s find a solution rather than just trying to meet this objective,” Westphal said, noting trained social workers or psychologists may better reach troubled students susceptible to perpetrating violence in schools, rather than a police officer.
Like Gordon, Caney said the BOF should not rush into funding more officers because once the positions are created, they will likely not be revoked. Caney called for more in-depth study of the SRO program before the board votes to fund more school officers. Dupier, commenting on the issue for the first time, said the schools should establish a comprehensive plan for school security before the BOF makes large appropriations.
Perhaps the strongest proponent on the finance board for SROs is Rea. “I happen to be of the opinion that 15 to 20 percent of our population, which is our kids in our buildings five days a week, is something the town of Westport, all taxpayers, should support,” Rea said. “The times have changed. We cannot deny reality.”
First Selectman Jim Marpe, who brought forth the most recent proposal on behalf of the police department, has asked for the Representative Town Meeting to review the BOF’s decision. The request will go to the full RTM for a vote on Oct. 2, and if a majority votes in favor of the appropriation, the finance board’s decision will be overturned.
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