Police Respond to Behavioral Issues in Waterbury Schools

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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP)_ Waterbury school officials relied heavily on city police to respond to the behavioral troubles of pre-kindergarten and elementary school students with disabilities during the 2018-2019 school year, a practice the state child advocate called ``problematic'' in a report released Tuesday.

Police were called to schools for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade nearly 200 times from September 2018 through March 2019, resulting in the arrests of three dozen students _ including nine children under 12 years old _ on misdemeanor charges, according to the report by Child Advocate Sarah Eagan.

``Unfortunately, use of law enforcement as a behavioral health first response system is problematic and does not increase the likelihood of a child and their caregiver becoming well connected to community supports,'' the report said. ``Ample research shows that early involvement with the justice system ... is strongly correlated to student arrest, student discipline, student disengagement and dropping out.``

The report continued: ``Today a national conversation is taking place regarding the role of police in schools and how reliance on law enforcement in our schools to provide security and behavior management has overtaken investment in children's mental health, mentorship, support for teachers and other educators, and investment in human services, a lack of investment that most harshly impacts children and communities of color, often children with disabilities.''

Connecticut court data on arrests of children under 12 in 2018 showed Waterbury led all cities and towns with 61 delinquency referrals to juvenile courts, compared with 20 referrals in Bridgeport and nine in Hartford.

During the same year, more than two-thirds of young children referred to juvenile courts statewide were children of color, according to Connecticut Voices for Children, a research and advocacy group.

The child advocate's office launched its investigation after receiving several reports of concerns about how Waterbury schools were using police to address the behavior of students with disabilities.

Eagan's office, which made a series of recommendations for reforms, detailed disturbing instances involving troubled young children in Waterbury schools and said school officials relied more on police than on available emergency crisis intervention teams.

Waterbury police officials acknowledged that officers generally are not trained to deal with children with disabilities and behavioral problems, the report said.

In one episode, an officer handcuffed an 8-year-old autistic girl because she was scratching her wrists with her fingernails in an attempt to harm herself. That happened after she slammed her head on a table and grabbed a pencil to stab herself in a classroom when a teacher took away her recess time because she misbehaved. The girl was taken to a hospital.

Of the nearly 200 calls to police, 81 involved mental health issues including suicide attempts, 43 were for disturbances and 17 were for assaults or fighting, according to police records obtained by the child advocate's office. Some of the calls involved children as young as 4 years old.

Of the instances that led to the calls to police, 25 resulted in student suspensions.

The report also said school officials vastly underreported to the child advocate's office the number of calls to police to deal with student behavioral problems, saying there were only about 50 during 2018-2019, compared with the nearly 200 reported by police.

Messages were left Monday for Superintendent Verna Ruffin and Police Chief Fernando Spagnolo. A school spokeswoman said school officials would not give interviews Tuesday and released a written statement responding to the report.

``Waterbury Public Schools is troubled by the findings of the Office of the Child Advocate and we continue to review and implement services and supports for our most vulnerable students and to respond to students in crisis,'' the statement said.

The school district also is changing its crisis prevention procedures to what officials called a nationally recognized model that includes applies behavioral analysis and deescalation techniques, with staff receiving new training Tuesday and Wednesday.

School officials told the child advocate's office that they were going to reduce reliance on police and reduce suspensions of young children, the report said.

Eagan's office made recommendations including calling on the legislature to prohibit stationing police officers in schools and raising the state's minimum arrest age from 7 to 12.

The report also stated that schools and police should have agreements with mental health service providers to respond to student crises, and that police and paramedics should have crisis prevention teams trained in how to respond to emergencies involving children.

Robert Goodrich, co-founder of the local school reform advocacy group Radical Advocates for Cross-Cultural Education, said the report identifies disturbing information about policing in the city's schools, while not going into much detail about the trauma it has inflicted on students.

``And that leads to the most important impact _ viewing school as not a place of safety but a place that they're going to be criminalized and treated like inmates,'' he said.