Last week, Connecticut Voices released a report, Arresting Development: Student Arrests in Connecticut, the first comprehensive study of its kind. Our student arrest report was the subject of widespread coverage among news outlets, including the Connecticut Health I-Team, Fox Connecticut TV, and WNPR FM.
The “Arresting Development” report shows an encouraging reduction in the number of student arrests in our schools. Despite this positive news, much room for improvement remains. Records show that many of the students were arrested for behaviors that were probably not criminal (including skipping class, insubordination, and using profanities) and could likely have been handled within the school without police involvement. In addition, racial and ethnic minorities and special education students face higher rates of arrest. Together with wide variations in arrest rates among similar school districts, these disparities suggest a need for uniform criteria in decisions about arresting students in school.
What can we do to reduce unnecessary student arrests? The good news is that there are proven strategies and a strong commitment in Connecticut to reducing unnecessary student arrests.
Connecticut Voices’ report made several recommendations, including proposals that state policymakers and the State Department of Education should:
- Clearly define “student arrests,” which are not currently defined by the state. Collect and publish data on all student arrests (currently not required for all incidents resulting in arrests). We support a definition that conforms with the federal Department of Education Office for Civil Rights definition, which states, “a school-related arrest is an arrest of a student for any activity conducted on school grounds, during off-campus school activities (including while taking school transportation), or due to a referral by any school official.”
- Require districts with police stationed in schools to create a memorandum of agreement between the schools and police that sets ground rules concerning arrests. For example, the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee has published a model memorandum of agreement (Word document).
- Provide technical assistance to districts seeking to reduce arrests and promote sharing of successful strategies from other districts.
In addition to our report, two comprehensive resources by partner organizations dive into further detail about practical methods and strategies that advocates, schools, and communities can use. Adult Decisions: Connecticut Rethinks Student Arrests, a 2013 publication of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, highlights reform efforts in the communities of Manchester, Stamford and Windham, where stakeholders have worked hard to reduce student arrests. Strategies in these districts include:
- A new discipline policy that states most problems should be resolved by students, teachers, parents and administrators.
- A graduated response model that lists actions to be taken for specific misbehaviors before turning to law enforcement.
- Increased use of the Juvenile Review Board, a restorative justice model that diverts youth from court.
- A School Safety Review Board that connects kids to services designed to help them address the root causes of their behavior.
- Substance Abuse Diversion Programs. Students may be referred to a community provider for an initial assessment which may recommend counseling or attendance at a substance abuse education group.
Offering additional concrete steps for action, the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut (CHDI) recently released a report, The SBDI Toolkit: A Community Resource for Reducing School-Based Arrests. The CT School-Based Diversion Initiative (SBDI) addresses the fact that youth with mental health needs are far more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system. This toolkit offers resources geared towards school administrators to help connect at-risk students to community-based mental health services, and reduce school arrests and juvenile justice involvement among youth with mental health needs. Schools can apply these principles at little to no cost. The toolkit includes a checklist of immediate action steps and sample memoranda of agreement (MOA) that your school can use to link with local providers and police departments.
By working together, advocates, police, schools, lawmakers, and communities can reduce unnecessary student arrests.