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Connecticut towns cut student arrests without compromising safety

Several Connecticut towns are dramatically reducing arrests in their schools without compromising safety, a report by the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance finds. The report, Adult Decisions: Connecticut Rethinks Student Arrests, looks at the national problem of students being arrested for minor misbehavior and profiles three Connecticut towns working to end the overuse of arrest in their schools.

Manchester, Windham and Stamford all worked with the Alliance to increase order in their schools while decreasing the number of students arrested. Results were striking. For example, Manchester High School’s student arrest rate fell 78 percent in a single year.

“Kids shouldn’t be arrested in school for things we wouldn’t consider a crime outside of school – for example, for possession of tobacco,” said Lara Herscovitch, deputy director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance. “These districts found ways to support students and teach good behavior. That makes school a better environment for every student.”

The report examines a surge in student arrests that accompanied an increased police presence in schools since the 1990s. Originally placed in schools to protect students, police found themselves put in situations where their roles were ill-defined. Many had no special training to work with children and adolescents. Police were often called upon to enforce school discipline. The primary police enforcement tool is arrest. “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Manchester Police Chief Marc Montminy said in the report.

The Alliance offered the districts training in school arrest reduction the focused on clearly defined roles for police within schools and on better supports to improve student behavior. The schools also received assistance from Judge Steven Teske of Georgia and former Judge Brian Huff of Alabama, who led student arrest reduction efforts in their jurisdictions that have become national models. Their work is supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The communities adopted a model memorandum of agreement for school districts and police departments. The MOA is made available by Connecticut’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee.

Though the communities profiled in the report worked hard to achieve results, Herscovitch stressed that any town in Connecticut can undertake such a project. “These towns were the trailblazers. One of our goals in releasing this report is to share the lessons they learned along the way. None of these communities is wealthy and all faced particular challenges in their schools. This work can be done wherever adults are determined to do it,” said Herscovitch.

Arrest doubles a student’s risk of dropping out. A court appearance quadruples the chances of dropping out. Connecticut’s Judicial Branch found that in the 2011–2012 academic year 19 percent of juvenile arrests that made it to court originated in schools.

Voices from the report:

“I know how hard it is to be a teacher and how hard it is not to be safe,” said former Chief Administrative Judge for Juvenile Matters Christine Keller, herself the mother of a teacher. But that does not mean that any misbehavior should be turned into a crime by using conveniently broad definitions. “Disorderly conduct is anything that annoys anybody else,” she said.

“What keeps us in it is knowing that if kids have a chance to stay in school, they will fare a lot better in life.” Patricia Calvo, Youth Services Bureau director Windham.

“We have to figure out ways that people feel respected and make it easy for them to be engaged and understand what the child needs,” said Judge Mary Sommer, formerly of Stamford’s Juvenile Court. “You only get one chance to be a child.”

“You want us to go to school and show you some respect, but you’re not listening to us.” College student Sacha Gomez reflecting on her high school experience.