At 10:40 a.m., Officer Jeremie Elliott warned a class of teenage boys that touching a girl’s butt can be a felony. An hour later, he talked to girls about sexting and child pornography. Between classes, he reminded a boy that he shouldn’t be walking down the hall with his arm draped over female classmate.
Officer Elliott (picture) was taking on sex crime—in preventive, community-policing fashion. Inside a school.
In the classrooms and in the hallways of New Horizons School Friday morning, Elliott (pictured) played both educator and authority figure.
Those are just two of the many roles he’s called on to fulfill as the school resource officer (SRO)—aka school-based cop— at New Horizons on Hallock Avenue in the Hill. He’s also a mentor, counselor, big brother, father figure, voice of authority, helping hand, and sometimes arresting officer. Elliott, who’s 32, is one a group of a cops deployed to New Haven’s schools as part of the police department’s community policing strategy. He’s there not only to enforce laws and protects students and staff, but to forge relationships—to try to reshape the sometimes adversarial dynamic between cops and teens.
That task can be especially daunting at New Horizons School, which has a reputation as one of the city’s toughest. New Horizons takes students who for a variety of reasons would benefit from closer attention in a smaller school. Some of the kids have tangled with cops in the past; they may be on probation or out on parole.
“This is the heart of community policing,” said Lt. Tony Reyes, Elliott’s boss as top Hill cop. “He’s a great SRO. It’s very challenging to work with this group of students.”
“Jeremie has been tremendous,” said Sgt. Elisa Tuozzoli, who supervised the SRO program until last month. She said his connections with teens have helped police respond to reports of runaway or missing kids. Police have found at least three with his help because of his “rapport” with people who might be close to the missing kids. She and Reyes both mentioned Elliott’s role in catching a guy who tried to bring a gun to school.
Since he was assigned to the school a year ago, Elliott has earned praise from his superior officers and from the school’s principal, Maureen Bransfield. Elliott said he has found a way to connect with the kids, drawing on the “mental resilience” training he picked up during his 14 years in the U.S. Army. In school in the Hill, that training has proved valuable in setting the rules for how young men and women touch each other, in class and beyond.
“Nobody Smack Butts”
On Friday morning, the school enlisted Elliott to address a problem with unwanted touching in the hallways. Elliott’s job was to explain the legal definitions and consequences of sexual harassment and sexual assault.
“We been hearing that girls feel uncomfortable in the halls sometimes,” said teacher John Tarka, a burly bearded man in an Idaho Vandals sweatshirt. He was speaking to a room full of about 25 teenage boys, slouching in desks scattered through the room.
“Before we have these guys arrest you,” he said, pointing to Elliott and his visiting supervisor, Lt. Reyes, “we want to educate you.”
Tarka asked the boys to imagine how they’d want their mothers, girlfriends, or little sisters treated if they were to walk down the school’s hallways.
“Some girls want to be touched,” Tarka acknowledged. “If they ask for it, say, ‘Meet me after school.’ Don’t do it here.”
Elliott took a podium at the front of the class, standing with soldierly straight posture. “What’s a sex crime?” he asked.
“A girl saying no,” offered one student.
Someone saying, “Damn, her ass fat,” offered another.
“Sex assault is you grabbing her titties,” said a third.
Elliott turned some of the foul language into a teachable moment, warning that someone can file a sexual harassment if she is offended by vulgar language, even if it’s not directed at that person.
Any unwanted contact can be assault, Elliott said. He spoke about the difference between assault and harassment, and third-party harassment, female-to-male harassment, and statutory rape.
“You cannot touch a female anywhere in this building,” said Principal Bransfield, taking over for a minute. She related a story from 1982, when she was piled into a Chevette with nine high school friends. When they drove past a woman on a bike, Bransfield’s friend stretched out the window and “gave her butt a slap.”
“He caught himself a felony,” she said. The laws haven’t changed since 1982, she said.
A student offered a hypothetical: “Say a female punched my in my nuts ...”
“Cover your nuts,” the principal responded. She talked about not escalating conflicts and assured the class that the school’s female students were also getting a talking-to.
“Who knows what a conspiracy is?” Elliott asked, resuming his presentation.
“Like, if me and Nas go kill somebody and I pull the trigger but he’s there,” we can both be charged, a student replied.
If you’re with a group of guys and one of you touches a girl’s rear, all of you can be charged, Elliott said.
“So nobody smack butts around me!” said a student.
“Me either!” called another.
Trouble With “Terrible”
After his talk, Elliott returned to his small office nearby, decorated with an American flag, boxing gloves, and two large National Guard recruiting posters. Elliot joined the Army National Guard when he was still in high school, taking basic training between his junior and senior years at Eli Whitney School in Hamden, where he graduated as valedictorian. All the men in his family had served in the military, he said. “It’s an honor thing.”
Elliot has served two tours in Iraq, and quickly shot up the ranks in the Army. He’s now a sergeant first class, and in his last deployment was in charge of a platoon of 30 to 40 soldiers. He draws similarities between his roles in the Army and in the school. In both cases, he plays the roles of protector and counselor.
As a protector, he’s in charge of making sure his soldiers and the students get back home safely, that they get “through this day.” It’s the same in the school. His first task is to make sure no one is in or causing danger.
As a soldier, and as a cop, he’s also watching out for people’s mental states. “Counseling is a day-to-day activity when you’re in Iraq,” he said. Soldiers are constantly dealing with high-stress, high-stakes situation and need help to stay calm and collected.
While New Haven is by no means a war zone, students at New Horizons do hear gunshots. They do know people who’ve been shot. They may have witnessed or experienced violence themselves, Elliott observed.
“They bring all that stress here,” he said. It takes “the same skills to calm down a soldier.”
Elliott uses a technique he’s been trained in called “mental resilience,” to help defuse tense situations with students, then help them to reflect on their behavior.
He did that one day earlier this year with Brenton Shumaker (pictured), a 17-year-old junior with a gold grill in his teeth that spells out his show-business name: “Terrible.”
Waiting for the bus home on Friday, Shumaker explained what had happened. He had come to school that day earlier in the year in a bad frame of mind. He got into an argument with a student, then told off a teacher.
“I was in a mood,” he said. “I said some things I shouldn’t have said.”
“He was a little mouthy,” Elliott agreed.
Elliott took Shumaker to his office and talked it over with him. He used a mental resilience technique called ATC, for “Activating Event-Thoughts-Consequences”: What happened? What were you thinking when it happened? What was the outcome?
Had it been a different cop, Shumaker said, “it would have just been, ‘You’re under arrest.’” But Elliott listened. They were able to unpack what had happened, and how it had unfolded from the mood that Shumaker came to school with.
“I always turn it around on the kid,” Elliot said. If someone starts to point fingers, Elliott directs him back to his own actions. “Make them own the situation.”
“He made me see the error of my ways,” Shumaker said, grinning to show his dazzling teeth.
After speaking with the boys about sexual harassment Friday, Elliott was called to speak to a class full of female students, on the same topic. He covered some similar ground: harassment versus assault, harassment can be words or actions, statutory rape.
Teacher Patricia Sorrentino stressed the importance of setting proper boundaries with males. Even if you have had some welcome contact in the past, if your feelings change, you need to make that clear, she told the girls in her class.
“As women we have to respect ourselves and make it very clear,” she said. “It’s up to us as women to set those boundaries.”
Elliott warned girls not to send nude photographs to anyone. That can be considered child pornography. Yyou could get charged with possession and distribution, and end up on a sex offender registry, he said.
One girl asked about how to report unwanted behavior without letting a boy know you told on him. Sorrentino talked about some ways to protect someone’s identity. She spoke again about respecting yourself, said that harassment is not the victim’s fault.
“They were a lot more open,” Elliott observed as he left the classroom with school social worker Cristina Martins (at right in photo above). While the boys had laughed off the discussion, the girls seemed to have been listening more attentively. “They may have lived this stuff.”
Elliott took up a position in the hall as classes changed. Students walked past, greeting Elliot with a word or fist-bump.
“Don’t look at me,” said Shumaker as he walked toward Elliott, acting tough but bursting into friendly laughter as he passed, skipping away.
“They know not to take it too far,” Elliott said. He said he balances friendliness with authority. Kids can joke with him, for instance, but “they know not to touch me.”
A male student came down the hall, his arm around a female student.
“We just talked about this,” Elliot said to him.
“All right, my bad!” the student shouted, and removed his arm.
“Please don’t take this no kind of way,” he said to the girl, for Elliott’s benefit. “I’m not trying to go to jail.”
Let’s Do Lunch
Elliott has had to arrest students before, about 10 this year, on like breach of peace or drug charges. Students go through a metal detector in the morning; Elliott has made weapons arrests.
He also takes kids on field trips and buys them meals. He’ll bring an extra sandwich to school sometimes, to hand out to a student. If it comes to an arrest, Elliott and the school staff have exhausted every other option, said Principal Bransfield.
“We lead with love,” Bransfield (at right in photo) said. The school’s disciplinary focus is less on what a student does wrong and more on what he’s now going to do right. Bransfield said she needed a school resource officer who would work with that philosophy; she found one in Elliott.
As the bell rang to release students Friday, Elliott and Bransfield headed outside to supervise school bus boarding.
A student with a grey hood cinched tight around his head roamed the sidewalk, complaining that he’d been locked in a room all day and not given any food. Bransfield said the student had misbehaved terribly, and had been kept apart from other students. The staff had forgotten to bring him his lunch, for which they’d apologized.
Bransfield and Elliott took the student aside, to talk it over with him again. Hearing what had happened, Elliott said, “your lunch is on me Monday.” He promised to bring him an outside lunch, probably from McDonald’s.
“It calmed him down,” Elliott said, as the student walked away home. “It worked.”
Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:
• Shafiq Abdussabur
• Craig Alston & Billy White Jr.
• James Baker
• Lloyd Barrett
• Manmeet Bhagtana (Colon)
• Paul Bicki
• Paul Bicki (2)
• Sheree Biros
• Scott Branfuhr
• Dennis Burgh
• Anthony Campbell
• Rob Clark & Joe Roberts
• Sydney Collier
• Carlos Conceicao
• Carlos Conceicao (2)
• Carlos Conceicao and Josh Kyle
• David Coppola
• Roy Davis
• Joe Dease
• Milton DeJesus
• Milton DeJesus (2)
• Brian Donnelly
• Anthony Duff
• Robert DuPont
• Jeremie Elliott and Scott Shumway
• Jose Escobar Sr.
• Bertram Ettienne
• Bertram Ettienne (2)
• Martin Feliciano & Lou DeCrescenzo
• Paul Finch
• Jeffrey Fletcher
• Renee Forte
• Marco Francia
• Michael Fumiatti
• William Gargone
• William Gargone & Mike Torre
• Derek Gartner
• Derek Gartner & Ryan Macuirzynski
• Tom Glynn & Matt Williams
• Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
• Michael Haines & Brendan Borer
• Michael Haines & Brendan Borer (2)
• Dan Hartnett
• Ray Hassett
• Robert Hayden
• Robin Higgins
• Ronnell Higgins
• William Hurley & Eddie Morrone
• Racheal Inconiglios
• Juan Ingles
• Paul Kenney
• Hilda Kilpatrick
• Herb Johnson
• John Kaczor & Alex Morgillo
• Jillian Knox
• Peter Krause
• Peter Krause (2)
• Amanda Leyda
• Rob Levy
• Anthony Maio
• Dana Martin
• Steve McMorris
• Juan Monzon
• Chris Perrone
• Ron Perry
• Joe Pettola
• Diego Quintero and Elvin Rivera
• Ryan Przybylski
• Stephanie Redding
• Tony Reyes
• David Rivera
• Luis & David Rivera
• Luis Rivera (2)
• Salvador Rodriguez
• Salvador Rodriguez (2)
• Brett Runlett
• David Runlett
• Betsy Segui & Manmeet Colon
• Allen Smith
• Marcus Tavares
• Martin Tchakirides
• David Totino
• Stephan Torquati
• Gene Trotman Jr.
• Kelly Turner
• Lars Vallin (& Xander)
• Dave Vega & Rafael Ramirez
• Earl Reed
• John Velleca
• Manuella Vensel
• Holly Wasilewski
• Holly Wasilewski (2)
• Alan Wenk
• Stephanija VanWilgen
• Elizabeth White & Allyn Wright
• Matt Williams
• Michael Wuchek
• Michael Wuchek (2)
• David Zannelli
• Cailtin Zerella
• Caitlin Zerella, Derek Huelsman, David Diaz, Derek Werner, Nicholas Katz, and Paul Mandel
• David Zaweski