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Words Are His Best Weapon

A profile of Student Resource Officer Carlos Franco.

In a post-Columbine and 9/11 world, a heightened sensitivity to protecting the students and schools developed nationwide. As a result, a Student Resource Officer (SRO) became common in many communities and was seen and utilized as a resource within the educational setting. The individual is often trained to fulfill three roles - a law enforcement officer, a law-related counselor who provides guidance to students and a law-related education teacher and resource who shares his expertise in the classroom.

In Greenwich, the possibility of having such a presence at began in 2003 when there was a feeling that student behavior had surpassed the capabilities of the staff alone. Then-Board of Education Chairman Sandy Waters said, “When the issue was first discussed in 2003-2004, I supported the installation of a school resource officer in the GHS Student Center.” While not every board member at the time supported the installation of an SRO, a majority were. However, all agreed that measures needed to be taken and charged the school superintendent with identifying solutions. For Waters, an SRO meant that “not only could student safety be more consistently assured, but also students would be held more accountable for their behavior on school property."

While this discussion within the district, and community continued, it was in February 2006 when rising tensions among two groups of students escalated into a fight in the Student Center. The incident, which was followed by threats posted to a blog, became the catalyst for immediate action.

Then-school superintendent Dr. Larry Leverett decided to request police be posted at GHS until the February break. Two detectives, since retired - Chris Webster and Phyllis Mickel, became a plain clothes presence on campus for what ended up being the rest of the year. Meanwhile Leverett and then-Police Chief James Walter tried to work out a solution acceptable to the community. Their focus was on how to keep 3,000 people and 52 acres safe. At the same time, there were community members who felt that a full-time police stationed on campus sent the wrong message to the students, especially if the officer carried a weapon.

Then GHS PTA Co-Presidents Marjorie Stone Rodriguez and Debbie Appelbaum spoke at Board of Education meetings in favor of an Student Resource Officer in light of the recent incidents. Many in the community spoke of the need to develop a strong, positive image of the Police Department within the educational setting. In a public statement issued by the East Sector of the Community and Police Partnership (CAPP), a group of residents of adults and students from the east section of town, it was stressed that a school resource officer would send a strong message of the importance Greenwich placed on the safety of its students, outweighing any possible negative image created. A well-trained officer would be able to promote an ‘open-door’ policy for students and staff to have candid conversations without fear of reprisal.

Those supportive statements and rationale were prescient in their accurate portrayal of the officer in the role of SRO for Greenwich High School, Carlos Franco. Beginning with the  2007-2008 school year,  the Greenwich Police Department in partnership with the Board of Education established a School Resource Officer program, resulting in a positive experience for the students, faculty as well as the police.

Five years after the 2006 student center fight, Franco is seen as a normal and integral part of the school community, playing a variety of roles in the school. Going much beyond law enforcement, he acts as a counselor, mentor, teacher, social worker and simply a friend to many students. As Franco says, “I have never worked so hard in my life; I have to be ‘on’ at all times.” 

Visitors to the GHS Student Center are greeted with a blast of noise as 3,000 students move between classes, eat lunch, study or simply meet their friends.  But Franco says he is so accustomed and “attuned to the roar” that he can tell when something is “brewing” and his job is to diffuse it. To be clear, diffusing does not mean what some might think.  Franco states that he does not believe he would be “servicing kids by arresting them.”

His supervisor, Sgt. Mark Zuccerella, stresses that Franco’s primary job is safety in the school. “Schools should be off limits to violence, weapons, drugs and anything else that would disrupt the educational process”  Zuccerella said. Dr. Bob Lichtenfeld, Greenwich Public Schools Managing Director of Operations, explains that Franco’s presence is important not just for students but also provides psychological support for faculty and staff. 

“The District is fortunate that the Town Of Greenwich recognizes the importance of the position by financing it” explains Lichtenfeld.

Franco works out of the Student Activities Office and is on-site Monday to Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. throughout the school year and into July. He reports to Headmaster Chris Winters when on the job at GHS and works closely with the housemasters and faculty. A 14-year GPD veteran, Franco also has worked in the Patrol Division.

It is clear talking to Franco that it is the kids that motivate him to excel. He talks about how kids come and show him their report card, that he has been the subject of college application essays and that the job rewards him “if I can help one kid.”

Part of the success of the SRO, is not the implementation of the position alone, but the man in the modified police uniform. Lichtenfeld gives kudos to Franco for wearing multiple hats so effectively. While approximately 80-90% of Franco’s time is spent on counseling and social work, 5% on school administration tasks and the mere remainder of pure law enforcement.

He teaches and is a regular “guest lecturer” in constitutional law, a leadership class, forensics and health-the law and you. Franco is a mentor, a friend, sometimes even a doctor, but always a sage with an open mind and big ears, not to mention broad shoulders.

Lichtenfeld said, “there has been a tremendous relationship built between the individual and the students” and that the students have developed a respect for a police officer. He stressed that the impact of Franco’s counseling and relationships with students has been a valuable preventative element even if it is hard to measure how problems which could have escalated into major issues have been addressed by Franco’s presence and skills.  When asked about the frustrating part of his role, Franco quickly responds with true disappointment in his eyes “When I can’t help. When I can’t get to a kid.”

Franco is proud of the rapport he has established with the students and he is known to participate in Duck Duck Goose during the annual GHS House Olympics. He laughs when he relates how he has been told “you are not really a cop” and, one of his favorite lines during the past four years, “that’s a stitch-on badge!”  Franco summarizes his role as the SRO at GHS best when he says “What comes out of my mouth is my best tool; not what I carry on my waist.” 

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