In Manchester High School, students were being arrested “practically for breathing,” according to Superintendent Ana Ortiz. That’s no longer the case. Last year, the school’s arrest rate fell 78 percent.
Manchester was one of three towns that the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance worked with to dramatically reduce arrests in their schools without compromising safety. We share their stories in our new report, Adult Decisions: Connecticut Rethinks Student Arrests. Manchester, Windham and Stamford, Connecticut deserve heaps of praise for their work to end the flow of kids into the juvenile justice system, while also making their schools safer and more welcoming places for all students.
We started with a simple proposition: Kids shouldn’t be arrested in school for things we wouldn’t consider a crime outside of school – for example, for possession of tobacco. Minor misbehavior should be looked at as an opportunity to teach, not a reason to send a kid away in handcuffs. These districts found ways to support students and teach good behavior. That makes school a better environment for every student.
The report examines a surge in student arrests that accompanied an increased police presence in schools since the 1990s. Originally placed in schools to protect students, police found themselves put in situations where their roles were ill-defined. Many had no special training to work with children and adolescents. Police were often called upon to enforce school discipline. The primary police enforcement tool is arrest. “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Manchester Police Chief Marc Montminy said in the report.
The Alliance offered the districts training in school arrest reduction that focused on clearly defined roles for police within schools and on better supports to improve student behavior. The schools also received assistance from Judge Steven Teske of Georgia and former Judge Brian Huff of Alabama, who led student arrest reduction efforts in their jurisdictions that have become national models. Their work is supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The communities adopted a model memorandum of agreement for school districts and police departments, defining the roles and responsibilities of each. The MOA is made available by Connecticut’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee.
Though the communities profiled in the report worked hard to achieve results, any town can undertake such a project. One of our goals in releasing this report is to share the lessons these trailblazers learned along the way. None of these communities is wealthy and all faced particular challenges in their schools. This work can be done wherever adults are determined to do it.
It’s urgent that we make a commitment to stop criminalizing school discipline. Arrest doubles a student’s risk of dropping out. A court appearance quadruples the chances of dropping out. Connecticut’s Judicial Branch found that in the 2011–2012 academic year 19 percent of juvenile arrests that made it to court originated in schools.
Does the success of the towns in the report indicate that there’s no downside to stationing police officers in schools? Certainly not. But their stories illustrate that communities can take a thoughtful approach to the role of police officers in schools. As so many communities around the country are poised to increase school policing, at the very least there should be clearly defined boundaries that ensure we’re not criminalizing kids for trivial reasons.
Abby Anderson is executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, a public policy and advocacy organization that consistently wins major victories for at-risk youth. Anderson became director at CTJJA in 2007 and, among other initiatives, ensured appropriate funding for and implementation of the Raise the Age bill, which removed thousands of teens from adult courts and facilities. Abby joined the Alliance in 2004 as a senior policy associate. She has served on the executive committees of the National Juvenile Justice Network and the Coalition for Juvenile Justice.
Updated: February 08 2018