On Officer Elliott’s Beat, “Nobody Smacks Butts”

Thomas MacMillan PhotoAt 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.

“My Bad!”

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
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Holly Wasilewski (2)
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Stephanija VanWilgen
Elizabeth White & Allyn Wright
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Michael Wuchek (2)
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David Zaweski

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posted by: wendy1 on March 24, 2014  8:32pm

I feel sorry for horny highschoolers…one wrong move and you’re in the penn.  New Haven kids having to see cops coralling them at school and at the supermarket and on the corner must feel bad.  Is it like this at Guilford or Madison?  I would hate to be a kid now.  In the 60’s we pushed back against this kind of treatment.

posted by: Hill Resident on March 25, 2014  2:06pm

In an ideal world we wouldn’t need a SRO. But I would rather the kids interact with Police like Officer Elliot in our schools then having them be involved in some criminal activity on the streets. It most likely isn’t like this in Guilford or Madison but it’s like that in NH. We must use whatever resources are available to us to reduce crime, the murder rate (up one as of last night ... 2 high school teenagers shot, one dead), sexual assaults ... whatever we can. I thank Officer Elliot and his fellow officers for having a positive impact on our youth. Times change, and our policing must also change. Good work.

posted by: soldier_1999 on March 25, 2014  3:27pm

New haven kids don’t feel bad because they see police all the time.. They know it’s unfortunate the way of life in new haven. The police try and make sure they feel protected and educate them on the law. How many times have you heard of someone saying (kid or adult) “I didn’t know that could get me arrested”?... Probably more than a 1000 times. The police being in the schools makes these kids feel a sense of safety within the confines of the building and someone they can go when there is a problem outside of school. If more schools had police officers in them, we probably wouldn’t have so many school shootings.. The reason things happen like that is because people think like wendy1 who commented below. They think it’s so harsh to have a police presence. Does Guilford or Madison have the same crime rate of New Haven? No… The other type of person who thinks life her is the predator who ones after these kids or that kid predator student within the school walls. If you are going to compare things, make sure they are similar…. Great job to officers like this . He is not corralling the kids by the way, he is educating them, advising them, building relationships with them… Keep up the good work

posted by: Atwater on March 25, 2014  6:10pm

It’s sad that this information has to come from a police officer and not a parent. Aren’t they (the parents) supposed to teach their children how to treat people, women and men, with respect?

posted by: Josiah Brown on March 25, 2014  7:42pm

It’s encouraging to see Officer Elliott acknowledged for his work—in this case with young people, including educating them about legitimate issues/potential crimes related to unwanted sexual attention and technology. 

(Regarding concerns that certain behaviors are too often criminalized, it’s worth considering when to apply—and when not—the “balanced and restorative justice” approach used locally by the New Haven Juvenile Review Board, operating through a partnership involving the NHPD, NHPS, NH Family Alliance, and Community Mediation.)

It’s good, too, that New Horizons teachers John Tarka Jr. and Patricia Sorrentino are recognized here.

Last spring, John Tarka invited me to visit his classroom as he taught a lesson from a curriculum unit he had developed as a Fellow in a 2012 Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute seminar. His unit addressed “Art and Conflict: The Visual Struggle”:

Later, he brought his class to see galleries at the Yale Center for British Art.

John Tarka created that unit in a seminar led by Tim Barringer, Mellon Professor of the History of Art, on “Understanding History and Society through Visual Art, 1776-1914.” The volume of units that teachers prepared as Fellows can be found here:

Among those units is one that Patricia Sorrentino developed on “Using High-Interest Artwork to Make Observations, Inferences, and Connections”:

P. Sorrentino was a Fellow in 2011 and 2012. She is a Fellow again now, in a seminar on “Exploring Community through Ethnographic Nonfiction, Fiction, and Film” (led by Kathryn Dudley).

The seminar led by K. Dudley is one of four 2014 seminars. Another is led by James Forman Jr., Clinical Professor of Law:

posted by: wendy1 on March 26, 2014  9:35am

@ soldier:  So what you are admitting is there are 2 kinds of school systems, an urban Black one and a suburban white one.  Welcome back Jim Crow.  You live in a racist country where most black and brown people are poor and considered expendable.  I have always believed in integration which is why I live in NH and NYC and San Francisco.  Better education, living standards, and job opportunities are required to save this country.  The only hope for many poor blacks right now is to join the service to get a job but even that’s a raw deal—-talk to Robin, a homeless ex-marine, citizen of NH.

posted by: Jones Gore on March 26, 2014  12:59pm

I always felt that the type of behavior that criminalizes people need to be taught in school as a way to prevent these bahaviors.

Laws are passed everyday and our children and even adults don’t know the heavy penalty of their action.

In suburban town where high automobile accidents occur, children are given high teach lesson by private and state organization to educate these students about safe driving. I don’t understand why the New Haven Board of Education, and other city education districts have not implemented course focusing on behavior that lead to incarceration.

This officer is doing an excellent job in educating these students about behavior that has led many men to be label sex offenders.