The streets around Warren G. Harding High School were mobbed with police officers on the first day of school.
The lights of patrol cars flashed at street corners, officers in helmets biked up and down the sidewalk and security guards wearing yellow vests with the words Safe Corridors on the back walked out of the school to shake the hands of returning students.
Wearing a similar vest and armed with a walkie talkie, Lyle Hassan Jones stood outside with an umbrella. He works for the schools as a truancy officer, but he’s also the school’s first Safe Corridors volunteer.
“I know most of the kids,” he said. “They know I know them.”
The Safe Corridors Program – a response to violence among youngsters – takes a three-pronged approach to school safety: streets, or corridors, around Harding, Bassick and Central High Schools, manned by police, volunteers, and security cameras; after school programming designed to keep older students in school longer, and a revamped disciplinary code, aimed at keeping children and teens in school.
“We’re going to get out of the business of suspending students and sending them home,” said Superintendent Paul Vallas at a press conference on Tuesday, Aug. 14.
While residents entered Cesar Batalla School to cast ballots in the primaries, Vallas, Mayor Bill Finch and Police Chief Joseph Gaudet stood outside the school doors, discussing the new safety initiatives.
“We want to reduce the number of arrests in our schools,” said Gaudett.
The program is headed up by Shively Willingham, special assistant to the superintendent for safety, security and school climate. Willingham, a former principal who worked with Vallas in Philadelphia, says that similar Safe Corridors programs have been put in place in both Philadelphia and Chicago.
The backbone of the Safe Corridors program is a team of volunteers, like Jones.
These volunteers — who are expected to act as the eyes and ears of the police — will be trained, given vests and walkie talkies. The job of the volunteers is to go into the corridors while students are walking to and from school.
Some volunteers will serve as “safe havens.” Those volunteers, who will undergo a police check and sign a contract – will provide shelter for any student who feels threatened on the way to and from school.
The program is a work in progress; the security cameras will be installed by the second week of school, and as of the end of August, there weren’t parent volunteers.
“We haven’t got the parents yet,” said Willingham. He said that parent recruiting will begin as soon as the school year starts.
There are some volunteers, however. According to Willingham and Vallas, 39 Bridgeport churches are engaged in the Safe Corridors program. Parishioners from those churches, said Willingham, will be patrolling the school corridors.
For Jones, work as a volunteer dovetails with his role as a truancy officer.
“Our biggest problem is kids getting to school in the morning,” said Jones.
His hope is that the Safe Corridors program will prevent students from being delayed or distracted on the way to school.
“It’s good, but different,” said Tavaun O’Reggio, a school security guard. O’Reggio was interviewed at a meeting on Aug. 23, when the schools welcomed back security personnel. “We’re hoping it will have a good effect on the kids.”
O’Reggio says that many of the students are afraid to go home at night.
The Safe Corridors program hopes to also entice students to want to stay in school for longer hours. The schools are creating a middle grades sports program for seventh- and eighth-grade students and are working with Lighthouse to provide a tuition-free high school extended day program.
According to Vallas, schools will be open to at least 5:30 p.m., and in some cases later.
The schools are also working closely with the police, says Lt. Albert Karpus, who said that the Board of Education police officers and school resource officers have now been brought under the authority of the Bridgeport Police Department.
“We’re bringing everyone together,” he said.
Although the program is beginning at the high schools, it is designed to expand to all schools.
“The three high schools are the base sites,” said Willingham. “The we’ll move to the feeder (schools).”
Though the cameras are being installed closest to the high schools, the schools nearest the three high schools — Geraldine Johnson, Bryant, Cesar Batalla, Curiale, Edison and Luis Muños Marin — are also covered by the Safe Corridors program.
Karpus says that he doesn’t know what to expect from the Safe Corridors program, but that he’s determined to see the program succeed.
“We’re going to make it work no matter what it takes,” he said.