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Minority Students Arrested More In East, West Hartford

CLASSROOM CRIME

JODIE MOZDZER and VANESSA DE LA TORRE

November 17, 2008

African American and Latino students in the West Hartford and East Hartford school systems are more likely to be arrested than white youngsters caught in similar situations, according to a report released today by the American Civil Liberties Union.

In "Hard Lessons: School Resource Officer Programs and School-Based Arrests in Three Connecticut Towns," the ACLU also expressed concern at the number of young children being arrested in Hartford schools. Over a two-year span, 86 students in grades K-8 were arrested, including 13 in third grade or below.

The ACLU based its 50-page report on data collected from the East Hartford, Hartford and West Hartford school districts, police departments and the state Department of Education from 2004 to 2007. The information covers students in grades K-12. The civil liberties group is concerned about what it calls a national trend in "criminalizing, rather than educating" children and argued that school-based arrests feed a "school-to-prison pipeline," where students become early and frequent visitors to the criminal justice system.

Which is why, the ACLU says, the racial disparity in arrests at West Hartford and East Hartford schools is particularly troubling.

"The fact that it even happens when students are committing similar offenses is cause for serious concern," said Jamie Dycus, an attorney for the ACLU's racial justice program and the report's main author.

A quarter of West Hartford's 9,000-plus students are African Americans and Latinos, yet they accounted for nearly two-thirds of the town's public-school arrests in the 2006-07 year, the report said. Under the category of fighting including incidents reported to the state as "battery/assault" and "physical aggression" white students committed 160 offenses from 2005 to 2007 that resulted in 18 arrests. During the same period, African Americans committed 140 such offenses, but there were 32 arrests, the report said.

In East Hartford, African Americans and Latinos make up about 70 percent of the district's enrollment. Of the 24 Latino students cited for drug or alcohol offenses, eight were arrested. During the same period, 29 white students were cited for these offenses but only one was arrested, the report notes.

Of the three towns, the arrest rate among all students was lowest in Hartford, but the ACLU expressed concern that a high number of students in Hartford are placed in out-of-school suspensions. The group contends that more arrests are likely made during those suspensions, figures that can be hard to pin down.

David Medina, Hartford schools spokesman, said the district was reviewing the suspension data but believed it was misleading.

West Hartford Police Chief James Strillacci was also skeptical of the report

"The ACLU has a point of view," Strillacci said. "They think arrests are bad. I don't think society as a whole agrees with that."

When students fight and are arrested, Strillacci said, "You need to know the facts of the case. Stats don't give you that. Not all fights are alike."

Strillacci also said statistics do not convey the personal relationships that West Hartford's two school resource officers have built with students. He took exception to the report's "impression that we just throw anyone out there." One officer has college degrees in sociology and education; another has worked extensively with police explorer programs.

"Schools like having the officers there; the parents like having them there as far as I'm concerned, the kids like having the officers there," Strillacci said. "They're there to protect kids."

Officer Hugo Benettieri, an East Hartford police spokesman, also described the town's three school resource officers as highly trained and rejected the idea that race influences arrests.

"The arrests are based solely on a student's behavior," he said. "If a crime has been committed, an arrest is made. You have to remember that is also a victim at the other end of the crime."

The report, Dycus said, was not intended to "point fingers" but rather start a discussion that will lead to more focus on preventive measures such as mentoring, mental-health services and substance-abuse programs. Besides looking at arrest data, the ACLU also examined the resource officer programs themselves. The report recommends that towns in Connecticut create formal policies for their school resource officer programs and provide more detailed information about the rate and nature of student arrests so the programs can be evaluated regularly. The group also wants the state to mandate minimum training requirements for all school resource officers.

Abby Anderson, executive director of the nonprofit Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, called the ACLU's recommendations "really basic" and said more needs to be done to prevent overzealous arrests. Anderson noted an incident in Bridgeport this year in which an angry fifth-grader threw his backpack across a room, accidentally hit a girl and was charged with third-degree assault. The case was referred to the city's juvenile review board.

"Obviously the kid shouldn't have thrown his backpack," Anderson said, "but I'm not sure we need to arrest the kid to make a point."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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