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Unlearning Surveillance

Less than a mile from Yale’s central campus stands my alma mater Hill Regional Career High School. There, it was normal to have a security guard blow a whistle in my face and bark at me and my friends to go to class because our lunch conversation lingered for a minute after the bell rang. School resource officers (SROs) patrolled the hallways, lunchrooms, and even bathrooms. Amidst this surveillance, I was confronted every day by the school’s lack of resources. Teachers often bought class materials out of pocket. The building lacked proper air conditioning. Hardly any school psychologists existed to match the needs of students. It was hard to accept that within this tight budget, money was used to fund more policing rather than more material support. 

Starting in 1994, New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) established the SRO program—the integration of a police officer into school—to increase both security and support within school districts. SROs differ from security guards in that they are armed police officers. While security guards are not sworn police officers, they still participate in the surveillance of schools. There’s a lack of available public data on SROs, including an explanation for what prompted NHPS to implement SROs in the first place. Now, the SRO program spans 70 school districts across Connecticut.

From my first day as an NHPS student, I was readily aware of our SROs and security guards. Our SRO was usually stationed downstairs, monitoring students as we walked through the metal detector. We also saw SROs outside in our hallways and bathrooms. I wondered if everyday tasks like finding a bathroom or walking to class needed to be policed. Whether we liked it or not, NHPS students were constantly confronted with surveillance. Yet it wasn’t until I was a junior that I was introduced to our psychologist and social workers. In some sense, it was clear who the New Haven Board of Education (NHBOE) wanted us to know. 

 While SROs never approached me in a standoffish manner, I likely benefited from being labeled as “good”—I was heavily involved with extracurriculars and close with staff, meaning I was not labeled an “at-risk” kid. I am a Southeast Asian woman, a demographic that doesn’t bear the main brunt of racialized police brutality. However, I still stood in solidarity with students who felt uncomfortable around SROs and what the SROs represented: a system that allows officers to be brutal. This mainly stems from the sheer power they have over us—students, but most importantly, kids. 

Last year, I witnessed our SRO—a fully armed police officer—slam a teenage girl against a brick wall, handcuff her, and lead her into a police car after a school fight. My school’s SRO was twice the age and size of the girl. I cringed watching him seamlessly slam her against the wall. More concerning, we never received an explanation for the severity of the SRO’s actions. I found this lack of transparency strange. How were we to rely on SROs for safety when their actions seemed so arbitrary? Aside from the violence, the sight of an SRO’s navy blue uniform and police badge will always create discomfort for students who have witnessed police brutality—either in their own lives or through the media. SROs will always be a symbol of fear even if they are not always putting their hands on teenagers. 

Just beyond my school, students began organizing against SROs. Citywide Youth Coalition is a group of NHPS students demanding disinvestment in SROs and reinvestment for mental health support. Citywide hosted a district-wide walkout last May, where I joined a crowd of 700 students from 13 high schools across New Haven. Chants of “Care not cops!” rang through the streets, and the protest pressured the NHBOE to actualize their plan promised back in April 2021: to implement more social workers, counselors, and support personnel. We envisioned a better future for our schools through investing in restorative and transformative justice. We insisted that New Haven end its memorandum of understanding (MOU)—a written, legal agreement between NHPS and the New Haven Police Department (NHPD). We demanded a reallocation of six million dollars from this police budget to anti-bias and anti-racist social workers in NHPS, phasing out the SRO program. 

 After seeing how unwilling NHBOE was to meet with Citywide executives and students, Citywide worked with statewide coalitions to introduce Senate Bill 1095 into Connecticut’s legislature in February 2023. With this bill, Citywide and other state coalitions hope to increase the transparency of the SROs by having the MOUs and the job performance of SROs visible to each school. In light of nearly a year after this walkout and the implementation of this bill in July 2023, I sought to hear how students and other community members felt about the future of SROs in NHPS. 

Searching for a Safe Place

“You can’t be in your neighborhood without the police being there and can’t be at school either,” Jamila Washington, a 20-year-old community organizer for Citywide, told me. “So, where’s your safe place?” 

Seven years ago, Washington started organizing with Citywide after being invited by a friend to join Citywide’s “Dinner and Dialogue,” a program where New Haven residents have round table discussions about social issues over a meal. She told me she joined Citywide as a “socially anxious” NHPS student, but as we talked and joked, I could see the joyful and confident 20-year-old community organizer she’d grown to be. 

Washington doesn’t support SROs in schools due to her lived experiences in NHPS, but her distrust in the system builds upon a growing body of information. Research by Connecticut Voices for Children demonstrates that SROs do not make schools measurably safer or improve academic outcomes, but their presence does greatly increase the number of students arrested each school year—feeding the school-to-prison pipeline. In the 2018 to 2019 school year, Black and Latine students were three times and one point six times more likely, respectively, to be arrested than their white counterparts. The average percentage of Black students arrested in schools with SROs present was over seventeen percent higher than those without SROs. In this sense, SROs seem to be more adept in criminalizing BIPOC students—the main demographic of NHPS—than creating a safer school.  

Even then, the New Haven Police Department is no stranger to such brutality, employing officers like those who left Randy Cox paralyzed in June 2022 and tackled Shawn Marshall, a bipolar man, during a manic episode in January 2021. This danger extends to SROs, employees in the same system. Upon a simple Google search, I found an Instagram promotional video from my SRO urging people to become good leaders for the New Haven Youth. But the link before it was an article about a New Haven police officer who assaulted a man at a Fairfield bar. A mixture of shock and discomfort contorted my face as I confirmed that the police officer charged with this violent encounter was the same one who roamed our hallways. I found it almost dystopian to see the side-by-side play out online. There have been too many instances in which police officers have been unnecessarily aggressive for me to find it possible to connect with them. 

Washington works alongside Alyssa Marie Cajigas, a director of the Citywide Youth Coalition. Cajigas is an NHPS alumna who has since dedicated her time to community organizing with Citywide. As she chats with me enthusiastically about the work Citywide continues to do, her love for the NHPS community is evident. 

“We believe that violence should never be the answer,” Cajigas told me, “and police should never be the first resort for discipline in schools.” She explained how police were called to address nonviolent situations such as a class interruption, which could easily be mended with proper social support.

A dual enrollment student at Hillhouse High School and Yale, Elsa Holahan, echoed Cajigas’s worries about policing. Perhaps she owes her conviction to her mother, who is a social worker, or to her own belief in schools where students “feel heard and create their most authentic self.” Regardless, Holahan chose to walk out to the Citywide’s protest last May. 

“There are power dynamics and it disrupts trust,” Holahan said about SROs before referring to the broader police system. “Students have had negative experiences and trauma.” 

Holahan’s words remind me of Washington’s story about a teacher at her school would threaten to call SROs against the typecasted “bad” students—including those who skipped class often—to get them to “behave.” Holahan is adamant about the removal of SROs from Hillhouse. After seeing the police cars parked outside and knowing there are students who have had negative experiences with the gun-wielding SRO, Holahan finds it impossible to ever develop any relationship with SROs. After all, there was no police officer roaming the hallways of the Humanities Quadrangle at Yale—another place where Holahan attends class. I couldn’t help but chuckle at her joke that SROs are “glorified hall monitors.” I asked her if it would be possible to connect with SROs on an emotional level. Without hesitating a second, Holahan confidently answered “No,” before we both giggled at her eagerness. 

But Cajigas emphasized that establishing a connection with SROs—whether a friendly relationship or one for mental support—can feel like the only option for some students when the officers are the most accessible and visible choice. “There is [almost] no other resources for students in the schools… to look for support and peer mentorship,” Cajigas told me. “Of course, they’re gonna rely on the only system available.” 

Cajigas noted that despite these positive relationships formed out of necessity, SROs are part of an oppressive system that is tied to even the well-intended people: “The truth is that Black and Brown folks are oppressed because of a system, not because of individuals. These individuals just so happen to be a part of a horrible system.” 

A Network of Support?

Within this complicated web of systemic fault but individual kindness, SROs do embody useful support systems for some members of NHPS. But these views often come with acknowledgments of the tension between individual trust and trust of the larger institution of the police force. 

“I think he’s a nice person,” Ayush Patel, a senior at Hill Regional Career High School, says about his SRO. “We were setting up for a robotics event, and he was able to find a table for us.” 

I saw a piece of myself in Patel. We both went to a predominantly white primary school and, as a result, we didn’t experience the surveillance of SROs until high school. His face tenses up as he scratches the back of his neck. He hesitantly admits that “[SRO presence] feels somewhat protective, but the fear of just weapons in general in school—even if it’s not within students—it’s just frightening.” 

Patel’s experience highlights a contradiction. He knows that his SRO is not inherently evil. At the same time, he feels troubled knowing the SRO wields a gun and taser—weapons that disproportionately harm people who look like him and his peers. 

Some students sympathize with New Haven’s vision of SROs and believe that they are effective protectors. Alex Aguirre, a junior at Hill Regional Career High School, recalls when a student got jumped by a group of other students during school dismissal. He believed that his SRO acted as a sign of “authority that can actually stop them [fighters],” and pulled students away, ultimately intervening midway through the fight. Aguirre views social workers as a second line of intervention– only there if something “crazy” such as physical altercations happens, while social workers can deal with the “small” issues such as arguments.

A school psychologist I spoke with, who requested to remain anonymous due to concern over the security of their job, explained that they view social workers, school psychologists, and SROs all as a team of trusted adults. This team, in theory, acts as social support for students and reaches out based on whatever the student’s individual needs. A safe school climate, according to the psychologist, comes from building relationships between teachers and the mental health support team. The psychologist expressed a fervent hope for increased mental health support as a way to provide more time and care for students’ specific needs. More importantly, they underscored that the students’ opinions in this conversation about SROs and mental health support will ultimately be the most vital, as they are the biggest stakeholders in this conversation. 

Like the school psychologist, Patel and Aguirre both seemed to agree that SROs represent a degree of safety within NHPS. In a perverse cycle, however, this safety is temporary. We often observed a fight, saw the SRO and security guards help break it up, and then waited for the next one. Watching this, many students came to associate SROs with safety since they were a reactionary measure to immediately resolve a situation. But even if SROs do break up school fights, the underlying roots of this violence are not resolved. Often the fight continues off school grounds—including near our school bodega, where I’ve seen student videos circulating. 

Despite differing views on SROs, both Patel and Aguirre supported Citywide’s protest, with Aguirre attending in solidarity with his friends who demanded better mental health support. Across their varying stances on SROs, the students I spoke with all just wanted to feel safe at schools and have an investment in more mental health services. 

Dr. Wendy Decter, a teacher who recently left NHPS after seventeen years, echoed these fundamental concerns. Decter explained how an ideal world would have more mental health resources to keep kids on track. She emphasized the importance of having as many people in school buildings to make student life easier. She hopes that SROs can be a reassuring presence for people as they are another route of adult support for students. She noted that some SROs become ingrained into the community, becoming familiar with students and their families. 

“I think the SRO was a wonderful resource, they knew [students] from a totally different perspective than the teachers and the school administration,” Decter said, alluding to the idea that SROs come from students’ own communities. “There should have been hiring of as many social workers, school counselors, school psychologists as possible, and making them as available to the students in school as easily as they could be made.” 

Within the status quo, some still believe the police to be the most effective form of safety. This is despite the fact that, as Cajigas pointed out, SROs have not been able to deter school shootings, even as far back as Columbine. In 197 instances of gun violence at U.S. schools since 1999, SROs intervened successfully in only three instances. 

Imagining NHPS without SROs can be difficult because surveilled schools are all that the majority of my peers have experienced—we have gotten desensitized.

Creating Safer Schools

When I imagine a safer and more just school, I envision a police-free space. Imagining NHPS without SROs can be difficult because surveilled schools are all that the majority of my peers have experienced—we have gotten desensitized. While I have the privilege to draw upon my knowledge of an SRO-free school before high school, this position does not fix the widespread lack of students’ understanding about how the disinvestment in SROs will improve school health and culture.

At my old school, much like NHPS, we would attend class, socialize with friends, and work in the library. But we did all these things without a police car parked alongside the school, police officers roaming the halls, and entering through a metal detector. These two experiences still coexist with one another. I have friends who have never experienced police in their schools, while others view it as unquestionably the norm. This tension raises further questions as to why SROs are still viewed as trusted and necessary figures by some groups in the NHPS community. 

“What the hell does better New Haven Public Schools mean? For me, and for a lot of my peers, it means having schools that nourish our souls in a way that actually matters.” Dave Cruz Bustamante, a youth community organizer and current NHPS student told me.

This pattern of SROs’ surveillance hasn’t shifted much since my or Washington’s years at high school. Although more SROs are allocated in larger schools, the students I talked with revealed that it didn’t matter their student population: each school had only one to three social workers—the same way I left the school. 

With the staff’s limited numbers and emotional bandwidth, it seems inevitable that NHPS students could experience mental exhaustion. Despite the seven hundred student turnout at the Citywide protest, Cruz Bustamante, who now serves as an NHBOE student representative, told me the NHBOE “is taking very small steps like revising the MOU with the police department…almost not noticeable at all.” They even admitted that by the end of their term, nothing entirely revolutionary would likely be changed about SROs due to the bureaucratic inactivity in the NHBOE. 

Instead of relying on reactionary figures like SROs, NHPS should instead look to preventive measures including hiring more healthcare professionals. Mental health professionals can intercept an issue before it manifests into something more harmful. This is especially vital as those with incomes below the federal poverty threshold and BIPOC individuals, the main demographics of NHPS, are disproportionately represented in the American carceral and legal system. Cajigas and Citywide have set out to transform this inequity, especially within the context of legislative work. 

Washington and Cajigas both told me that their campaign against SROs is “only phase one”—they plan to rethink community security as a whole. Cajigas explained that Citywide is reflecting on other forms of monitoring, including if older community members were employed as monitors in the place of SROs and security guards. In practice, this intervention could look like a community member with no affiliation to the police entering the school, rather than pulling in outsider cops from neighboring towns. Cajigas emphasized the need for NHPS students to be served and protected by members of the same community, disaffiliated from a system that notoriously harms BIPOC. 

As an NHPS alum, I’ve now become disconnected from the experience of SROs I had a year ago. I no longer have a fully armed police officer watching every move my peers and I make out of fear we will break out into a fight. Security guards no longer view my lunch container as a “weapon” since it’s glass. Yale is only a fifteen-minute walk from my old high school, yet my status as an Ivy League student has exempted me from being as surveilled by the police as I was in high school. At Yale, even when police roam around Cross Campus, they aren’t hounding students who are skipping lectures. The rationale behind this massive shift in surveillance has weighed on me.

Functioning for a year both at Yale and since the walkout prompted me to question whether we need SROs for a safe school environment. And though I went to an SRO-free school for most of my academic life, my four years in a surveilled school experience still lingers within me. At my predominantly BIPOC high school, we would rarely have toilet paper and grew accustomed to seeing police cars when we walked in through a metal detector. Now, I inhabit the world of a predominantly white Ivy League where students know truffle season in Milan and the most consistent police presence is guarding the exit to our libraries.

Though I am what feels like a world away, I still carry the same habits I did in high school, unzipping all six zippers of my backpack for a security check in libraries and speeding up when I walk by police cars. I doubt I’ll lose them any time soon. 

—Elisa Cruz is a first-year in Berkeley College.

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