Arrests in Connecticut schools dropped 13.5 percent from 2008 to 2011, but hundreds of the arrests made in 2011 were for minor policy violations such as throwing erasers, shouting, or leaving class without permission, a new report says.
The report by Connecticut Voices for Children – the first comprehensive study of its kind in the state – also found significant racial disparities in arrest rates: Black students were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested than white students, and Hispanic students were 3.2 times more likely.
“The overall number of arrests have declined, which is an encouraging trend,” said Sarah Esty, the report’s author and a former policy fellow of Voices for Children. “However, there remains a great deal of work to be done in terms of students being arrested for behaviors that likely could have been handled without police involvement . . . and in the disturbing disparities in arrest rates.”
Because the data is from 2011, it does not reflect several recent initiatives designed to reduce Connecticut’s school arrest rates. Two years ago, the Court Support Services Division began screening police summonses of juveniles and kicking back those it deemed inappropriate for prosecution. In addition, juvenile justice advocates have been working directly with districts to reduce arrests and address racial and ethnic inequities.
But the report also does not reflect what some advocates worry could be a rise in school-based arrests in the aftermath of the shooting at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School last December. Many schools opened this month with increased security in place, including armed guards.
The 2011 data shows 2,936 Connecticut students, or about one in 200, were arrested during the school year – down from a peak of 3,396 students arrested in the 2008 school year, and down 3 percent from 2010. The state’s 20 largest districts arrested students at vastly differently rates – from 1 arrest per 1,000 students in Trumbull, to 27.8 arrests per 1,000 students in Meriden.
Besides Meriden, the highest arrest rates among mid- to large-size school districts were in: Area Cooperative Educational Services, a regional school district serving greater New Haven (27.1 arrests per 1,000 students), New London (23.1 arrests), Ansonia (18.3), and Waterbury (17.1). In comparison, the statewide rate was 5.7 arrests per 1,000 students.
The report cites several large districts that were able to keep their arrest rates below the state average, including Hartford (4.6 arrests per 1,000 students), Stamford (5.0) and Bridgeport (5.0).
Within districts, arrest rates at individual schools varied widely, suggesting that much of the variation is driven by differences in school practices, not simply by differences in the student population, Esty said.
In New Haven, for example, Wilbur Cross High School had 56 arrests, for a rate of 43.4 arrests per 1,000 students, while four other high schools had rates of 1 to 5 arrests per 1,000 students.
“The fact that children of the same age who live in the same town, but happen to attend different schools, are arrested at markedly different rates suggests that (likely factors are) school climate; school rules and rule enforcement; the behavior of staff and their capacity to manage challenging student behavior; the presence and culture of police in the school; and student composition and student behaviors,” the report says.
The review found that 11 percent, or 342, of the arrests were for low-level school policy violations in which arrests were “likely avoidable.” For example, there were 41 arrests related to skipping class, 26 for profanity or obscene language, and eight for improper cell phone use. Another 724 arrests, or 23 percent, were classified as “questionably necessary,” including physical altercations without injuries, obscene behavior and false fire alarms.
Fighting that resulted in minor injuries was the most common reason for arrest, followed by drug and alcohol offenses. There were 156 arrests of elementary school children (grades kindergarten to six), including more than 10 students in grades three and below — and at least one kindergartener.
Schools in poorer, more urban districts arrested students at substantially higher rates than schools in more advantaged suburban districts. Students in the poorest urban areas — Bridgeport, Hartford, New Britain, New Haven, New London, Waterbury, and Windham — were arrested nine times more often than students in the wealthiest suburban areas, the analysis found.
Although white students were 62 percent of Connecticut’s student population in 2011, only 35.3 percent of the students arrested were white. Black children were 13.2 percent of the state’s students, but 27.6 percent of those arrested, while Hispanic students were 18.6 percent of state students, but 34.2 percent of those arrested.
In addition, students with special education needs were arrested at rates 2.8 times higher than their peers. The State Street School in Waterbury, an alternative program serving students with social, emotional and mental health needs, had the highest rate of arrests among all schools: 34 arrests among 77 students.
Experts say school arrests fuel recidivism in the criminal justice system and often take the place of more intensive interventions that can lead to better outcomes for children.
“Arresting children for behavior that could be handled in the school takes students out of the learning environment, sets back educational progress, and results in additional costs,” said Ellen Shemitz, executive director of Connecticut Voices for Children. She said the data suggest a need for policy changes “to prevent unnecessary involvement with the juvenile justice system, to keep children where they belong – in school.”
The report recommends that state policymakers and the Department of Education provide assistance to schools to reduce arrests, and require districts with police stationed in schools to create formal school-police agreements that set clear ground rules concerning arrests.
Esty said she was hopeful that the increased police presence in schools following the Newtown shooting would not lead to more arrests, but instead to “closer partnerships” between schools and police and more conversations about constructive interventions. Training for police working with youths is key, she said. Connecticut has no uniform standards for training.
“There are a lot of ways that Newtown can impact what happens,” she said. “If school districts aren’t doing the training and are putting police in schools without having those conversations . . . that’s a cause for concern.”
The 2011 data on arrests is available here.
Access a ‘toolkit’ designed to reduce school arrests, prepared by the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut, here.
Read a previous story by C-HIT on school arrests here.