Seeking alternatives to arresting kids

As a fifth-grader at a New Haven magnet school in 2009, Jacob was watching a lot of "Ed, Edd n Eddy" shows on TV - a slapstick cartoon that features adolescent equivalents of the Three Stooges.

Maybe too many shows, his mother now says.

That October, she received a call saying her 10-year-old son was in the principal's office with a police officer who was arresting him for giving a younger student - a girl - a wedgie on the school bus. His parents were dumbfounded.

"It was just surreal. You're going to arrest a little boy over this?" said his mother, who asked that her name not be used to protect her son.

A C-HIT review of data collected by the Connecticut judicial department suggests that Jacob's case, which was later dropped, is not unusual, especially in inner-city or overcrowded schools.

From March through May of this year, more than 700 arrests were made in Connecticut schools, two-thirds of them for minor offenses such as breach of peace or disorderly conduct, according to data obtained from the Court Support Services Division.

In New London, 15 arrests were made in schools, seven of them at the Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, two at the Science and Technology Magnet School and one at New London High School. Bennie Dover was among the top 15 arrest-heavy schools in the state, per capita, during the March to May period.

In Hartford, 87 arrests were made in schools, including 54 at grade K-8 schools. Similarly in Waterbury, 59 arrests were reported, more than half at elementary and middle schools. Offenses run the gamut from possession of tobacco, to swearing at a teacher, to fist-fighting.

The arrest data, which provides only a preliminary snapshot since the state began collecting it last spring, "blows out the myth that kids get in trouble after school or over the summer, when they're idle," said Abby Anderson, director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, which has been working to reduce school-based arrests.

"If you look at how kids get in trouble, it makes sense: They get in trouble as a group - especially in overcrowded, under-resourced schools," she said.

Connecticut is one of a handful of states trying to tackle school-based arrests, which experts say fuel recidivism in the criminal justice system and often are used in place of interventions that can lead to better outcomes for children.

School arrests have become increasingly commonplace in the post-Columbine era, with many districts imposing "zero tolerance" policies on student misbehavior.

In Connecticut, juvenile justice advocates have begun addressing the issue one district at a time. Pilot programs are in place in Manchester, Willimantic and Stamford.

School districts have partnered with police, the courts and community groups to stem arrests by developing a formal, graduated protocol on discipline, creating alternative interventions, and re-training school-based police, known as school resource officers.

In the courts, Bill Carbone, head of court support services, has directed his staff to begin screening all police summonses of juveniles and kick back those that are deemed insufficient or inappropriate for prosecution.

Carbone said he began looking closely at school-based arrests last year, after a review of juvenile court cases found that 41 percent of re-arrests were occurring during the school day.

A closer look revealed that the bulk of those arrests were for minor incidents, including carrying cigarettes, refusing to take off a hat, talking back to a teacher, even wearing pants too low. Such offenses can be labeled as breach of peace or disorderly conduct.

"These are the things that happened back when we were in school, that would typically be handled by a trip to the principal's office and some kind of school discipline - not through the courts," Carbone said.

He said recidivism rates suggest that children who are arrested once are more likely to re-offend.

"All the research says that when you send a kid to the court system, it doesn't act as a deterrent. It actually escalates the risk of more misconduct," Carbone said. "By handling these incidents this way, we may be increasingly steering these kids on the wrong path."

Strategies To Stem Arrests

In July, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education announced an initiative to address the issue by encouraging new strategies to stem the "school-to-prison pipeline."

In Connecticut, preliminary data suggests that the pipeline runs strongest in inner-city schools and some larger suburban schools: The schools that reported the highest arrest rates from March through May were located in Waterbury, Hartford, New Haven, Manchester, Bloomfield and Meriden.

While the arrests follow no clear pattern, data suggests that special education and minority students make up a significant portion of those who land in Connecticut's juvenile courts.

A study published in 2011 found that in a sampling of juveniles held in Connecticut detention centers, 60.2 percent were identified as either needing special education services or having learning disabilities.

"From what we see, a lot of these kids are undiagnosed special education students, or they're in failing school systems," said Martha Stone, executive director of the Center for Children's Advocacy, which represents juveniles in the court system.

The center - working with school, police, court and community leaders - has collected arrest data on schools in Hartford and Bridgeport, where the student body is largely minorities, and has presented those findings to school administrators in hopes of stemming arrests for minor offenses.

The 10 schools with the most arrests have been receptive to finding alternatives, Stone said.

Reforms Move Ahead

The Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance is guiding similar efforts in Manchester, Willimantic and Stamford. The three communities were chosen because they expressed a willingness to re-think school discipline, said Lara Herscovitch, the alliance's senior policy analyst.

The new protocols adopted by the districts - with help from the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee and others - offer detailed discipline guidelines, depending on the nature of the offense.

In Manchester, there are four disciplinary tiers, ranging from minor misbehavior that is to be handled by teachers, to chronic or more disruptive behavior that calls for social workers and guidance counselors to become involved, to serious behavior posing safety concerns that has administrators taking action.

But instead of the old system of suspensions, expulsions and arrests, the schools now have a variety of alternative programs in place, including a substance abuse program, a community service program, a school safety review board and a "SAFE Center," run by the youth services bureau, which works directly with troubled children and families.

Serious incidents - those involving injuries, threats of violence, weapons or drugs - are still referred to police, said Heidi Macchi, outreach social worker for the Manchester schools.

This story was reported by the Connecticut Health Investigative Team (www.c-hit.org), under an agreement with The Day.

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