When Ann Velazco patrols the halls and cafeteria of Carmen Arace Middle School or drops in on classrooms unannounced, students know why she's there and what she's looking for.
Their nickname for her makes that clear: "They call me Sherlock homegirl," Velazco said.
Velazco, the school's "climate specialist," is on the lookout for bullying behavior, disciplinary problems, or students flouting school rules, such as the dress code.
Her job was created as part of the state-mandated Safe Schools Climate Plan. She was previously in charge of mediation and discipline at the school for six years.
The statute requires the principal in every public school to be the climate specialist, or designate someone else to hold the position. In many districts, the responsibility is added to an administrator's duties, but at Carmen Arace, where bullying has become an issue and affected learning, officials decided to make it a full-time position.
"The whole goal is to improve the GPA, which improves the climate," said Principal Trevor Ellis.
Ellis believes that Velazco's work over the past several years dealing with bullying and disciplinary issues and mediating disputes has already reaped benefits inside the school, improving academics and reducing disruptive behavior in the classroom.
For the last three years, Ellis said, the school has ranked at or near the top in standardized test scores for the district, and an improved climate plays a big part in that.
"I have a very special person," Ellis said. "Her gift is mentoring children."
Velazco, a retired inspector from the state's attorneys office who spent many years investigating statutory rape cases, said she uses her professional experience to counsel students, resolve disputes and solve the rare case of theft.
"I take old-school stuff and put it in practice here," she said.
That includes giving students fair warning about consequences before she disciplines them, reducing punishments when warranted, and offering incentives – from cash to brownies - for information and good behavior.
"I've 'kid-ized' the judicial system," Velazco said. "I've adapted it to the schools."
On a recent day, she was investigating an act of vandalism directed at a student in one of the girls' bathrooms. To find the culprit, Velazco went into classrooms and offered a reward for information, asking students to write down the name of the person responsible, if they knew it.
Some students expressed hesitation about "snitching" — until they found out the reward was $25.
Velazco said her methods serve two purposes: breaking down the wall of silence, and allowing students to make a statement about what is acceptable inside their school.
"This is the real world," she said.
Eighth-grade students Juliann Mars and Lizahya Morgan, who were sent to Velazco's office for being disruptive in a class, said they appreciate that she listens to their side of the story and understands them.
"She breaks it down so we can understand it," Lizahya said, adding that Velazco expects them to "find our own solution, mostly all of the time."
Velazco, who deals with anywhere from four to 18 students a day on a variety of issues, said she has also made it a point to document every step of the disciplinary process, including taking written statements from students, emailing parents and producing a dailiy update on all disciplanary actions for teachers and staff.
To Velazco, documentation and communication with parents are key components to gaining their support and improving student behavior.
As a result, most parents realize that their child has been given opportunities to change their behavior and that the school is not just "picking on my kid," she said.
The main difference in Velazco's old job and her new one, she said, is creating more events that involve parents and the community. To that end, she has begun taking students to a nearby nursing home to visit and play games with elderly residents. She is also planning several Saturday Principal's Study sessions in which students and parents can come to the school and meet teachers in a different setting; take classes not related to the curriculum; or use the school's facilities, such as the computer lab or gym.
The message is "We don't always have to meet when you're getting in trouble," she said.
Ellis, who requested Velazco for her previous position and recommended her for the climate specialist position when the state mandate was adopted by the board of education, said he would like to see it expand to other schools.
"I think it should be done district-wide," he said.
State law requires that each school designate a principal or someone chosen by the principal to be a school climate specialist. The state Department of Education is required to submit a report on the anti-bullying effort every two years.
State Rep. Andy Fleischmman D- West Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature's education committee, said the goal of the legislation was to make sure that school districts took the issue of bullying seriously and applauded Carmen Arace officials for its efforts.
"If you have a school where bullying is a problem and children don't feel safe, that is incredibally injurious to learning," Fleischmann said, adding that school districts will be required show proof to the state Department of Education that they have made strides in reducing bullying.
James Polites, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said that school districts have until the end of the school year to begin to collect data on the climate in their schools.
Polites said the department has not compiled a list of which districts have created a full time position for climate specialists.
Velazco, who believes the advent of social media is partly to blame for the bullying issue, is confident that the state will see that Carmen Arace Middle School has made progress already because test scores continue to improve while student discipline decreases. especially in the area of bullying.
"There's a noticable change," she said. "Kids don't want to come to me with the bullying label."