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Board of Education Works to Cut Down on Arrests

While the city may have one of the highest student arrest rates in the state, school officials say they are slowly seeing a change in culture and pledge to continue working to bring down that figure.

Over the summer the school system applied for and received a $30,000 grant from the state that will aid in bringing the number of student arrests down. School officials shared components of the grant during a recent Board of Education meeting.

Though details are still being finalized, chief operations officer Paul Salina said they would like to use a portion of the funding to hire a part-time person that would, among other duties, make home visits with families of students who have repeat disciplinary referrals. Other money will go towards professional development for teachers to learn about “graduated” response models that involved deescalating students in the classroom before police become involved.

“The grant will also bring together many city agencies to help both students and families who have persistent problems related to acceptable behavior at schools,” Salina said. “Some of the problems are centered around attendance and truancy issues, which we are aggressively pursuing through other grants and resources.”

Under the leadership of Superintendent Kelt Cooper, proper behavior is being clearly communicated to students and leaders are beginning to see a positive cultural shift where youth understand the importance of civility both in and out of school, officials say.

“Though we wish to see the arrest rate of students reduced, be assured that the school district will not lower the standards we have in place to provide a safe and orderly school for all of our students and staff,” Salina said in an interview. He said that the actual number of students arrested is a “minuscule” number when compared to the total population of the city’s schools and that sometimes those who are arrested are repeat offenders.

City stakeholders have twice met to discuss the “best way to handle this particular topic,” Salina said. Two workshops were also held and were attended by teachers, police officers, social workers, and guidance counselors. The workshops offered a variety of ways to enforce old strategies and to put in place new ones.

“We’re trying to see what can be done to try and reduce these numbers,” Salina said. “The group is working collaboratively to review current procedures regarding school discipline and police involvement.”

Last spring, when a report from the state came out detailing the arrest rates and the number of in and out of school suspensions, the city was listed as among the top ten school systems in the state with the most number of incidents.

“Possible reasons for this higher rate: One we have a great level of security in our buildings and we have done an awful lot of things over the last several years to make policies, to enforce rules,” Salina said.

While the school system already has a strong relationship with area organizations that focus on working with youth before things escalate, Salina said a fresh set of eyes will look at these groups again to see if anything can be done differently.

New Britain High School was one of the first schools in the state to place security personnel and police officers, commonly known as school resource officers, inside the school.

“We currently have a clear understanding of the roles of school personnel in discipline and of the role of the police,” Salina said in an interview. “The police do not, nor do they want to, get involved in minor school discipline issues of a daily nature.”

A memorandum of understanding related to student arrests is currently under development that both the superintendent of schools and police chief will sign.

Board member Aram Ayalon argued that the number of school resource officers should be decreased or that they should be put in less “visible” areas so they are less likely to make an arrest for “often minor incidents.”

Salina said that students are not arrested for wearing a hat or wearing sagging pants. But when students are told to remove the hat or pick up their pants and the situation leads to an “aggressive verbal assault” on a staff member or the student becomes threatening through words or actions, “that would be something to involve the police, just as it would in any public venue or facility,” Salina said.

Salina said the school system also “truthfully” reports the number of arrests that occur inside the school system. “I don’t want to say that some towns don’t report truthfully, but I’m not sure every town, especially some of our suburban neighbors, like to hide things under the rug,” Salina said. “Unfortunately, we don’t.”

Salina said that recent news coverage of the high arrest rate in New Britain has left out mentioning that the bold and “aggressive” manner that many youth carry with them due to what they experience on television and in movies.

“An ‘in your face’ attitude has pervaded the mentality of many of our families, especially those in an urban culture,” Salina said. “Though we may work with our staff and the police to greater separate the issues of school discipline apart from offenses which warrant an arrest, young people also have to understand and be aware of the civility of a society and know what lines may not be crossed.”

Salina said it takes a “multi-faceted process” to create safe and orderly schools while at the same time helping youth maneuver through the various social and emotional stages of their lives. “We always seek ways to do things in a better manner and it is our hope that this grant will allow for positive growth in the areas of school discipline and safety,” he said.