If you are outraged that kids as young as kindergarten age are commonly suspended and expelled from Connecticut's public schools, prepare to get a whole lot angrier. We must also pay attention to an even more extreme form of school discipline, arrest.
This month, the state Board of Education released a report showing that suspension and expulsion are widespread for rather minor missteps. Minority, special education and charter school students are especially likely to face what we call "exclusionary discipline," punishments that result in a kid missing significant classroom time. This is a horrible disserve to our children and to taxpayers who have an expectation that we fund public schools so that children can actually attend them.
The report on suspensions was troubling enough, but consider the figures on arrests in schools. They are common. From September 2011 through February 2012, out of 5,112 total referrals of juveniles, there were 986 that the Judicial Branch logged as coming from schools. That's not the sum total of arrests. Fortunately many kids are diverted before they get to court.
Kids can be arrested for fairly benign behaviors, such as dress code violations or talking back to a teacher. Arrest differs from suspension and expulsion in two important ways:
First, it is a more serious consequence that can brand a child delinquent and lead to long-term involvement with the juvenile or adult criminal justice systems.
Second, arrest is getting much less attention than other forms of exclusionary discipline. The state Department of Education collects data on arrests in schools, but it has not acted on that data in meaningful ways. Though there are evidence-based programs that reduce arrests without compromising school safety, no school is obliged to use them.
Boys were twice as likely to be arrested as girls, according to an analysis of 2010 and 2011 data by Connecticut Voices for Children. The same analysis found that black children were nearly four times more likely to be arrested in school than white children; Hispanic children were more than three times as likely to be arrested as white children; special education students were nearly three times as likely to be arrested as regular education students; and children in the state's poorest districts were more than nine times as likely to be arrested as those from the wealthiest districts. Elementary school children were being arrested.
There is a perception that kids are "worse than they used to be," making arrest a regrettable but necessary means to preserve school safety. That perception is wrong. Youth crime and youth violence have been declining since the 1990s. Kids have not gotten worse. The adult response has. There have been cases in Connecticut of children arrested at school for possession of tobacco. Another common charge is disorderly conduct, a category so broad that it can include nearly any unpleasant behavior, such as running in the halls.
Some people are taking action. The Judicial Branch's Court Support Services Division has started turning minor arrests back to schools for alternative handling. In some districts, schools, communities and police departments have joined to sign memoranda of agreement on what the police role should be in schools. These communities have looked for ways to address the root causes of behavior. Their successes have been extraordinary Manchester High School reduced its arrest rate by 78 percent in a single year. Police Chief Marc Montminy says that the work transformed the school, which is now "definitely safer."
As more communities opt to place police officers in schools, it is imperative that they guard against the unintended consequence of increased student arrests. There are good ways to do that, as Manchester and other communities have shown. But first we have to admit that there's a problem.
No one is questioning that kids need to conduct themselves in an orderly, respectful way in school and deserve to be punished when they do not. But the punishment should be proportional to the offense. Sometimes students will disobey, use bad judgment, be disruptive. The question we need to ask is: Are they being criminals, or are they just being kids?
Abby Anderson is executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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