Nate Quesnel, the superintendent of schools in East Hartford, told a story about a student sitting in the back of the classroom, a wool cap pulled over his eyebrows, his faced glued to a cell phone, his fingers attacking the screen in a gaming frenzy.
"Right away, I recoiled inside," Quesnel said. "I felt embarrassed." He was embarrassed because at the time, an executive from Xerox was presenting the students with information on job skills, including how to act during an interview.
Quesnel looked over at the principal of the school, expecting him to do something. The principal walked over to the student, and shrugged at him. The student shrugged back, and kept gaming.
Quesnel later asked the principal, "What happened?"
"He said, 'You know, Nate, that’s a student we’re really working hard with, and we have a long-term plan for that student,'" Quesnel said.
Several years ago, a situation like this could have ended with a verbal confrontation. Now the district is trying a new approach to student discipline, called SBDI, or "school-based diversion initiative."
It’s meant to keep minor incidents like this from spiraling into serious discipline problems that involve police. The initiative has helped some Connecticut districts decrease their juvenile referrals to police by 45 percent, with other districts reporting an even higher success rate.
Spearheading the effort is a coalition of four state agencies: the Department of Children and Families, the State Department of Education, the judicial branch’s Court Support Services Division, and the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.
Representatives from these agencies, as well as lawmakers, educators, police officers, and other youth advocates, met at the State Capitol on Wednesday to discuss a collaborative effort to reduce school-based arrests and interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.
The Child Health and Development Institute, a non-profit organization that works on children’s health care issues, coordinated with the state agencies to implement the new school-based diversion initiative.
Twenty-one schools in ten districts have implemented SBDI since 2010. Eighteen of those districts cut nearly in half the number of students referred to juvenile court for behavior problems. By contrast, these districts also saw a spike in requests for emergency mobile psychiatric services.
Schools traditionally would call police to address many behavior problems. A Yale University study found that 156 elementary school children were arrested in 2011, including ten who were in third grade or below. That year, there were a total of 3,183 student arrests, with most of them coming from resource-strapped regions.
SBDI provides a framework for educators that enables them to identify which behaviors are the result of an underlying cause, such as mental illness, and provides them with tools to intervene that don’t involve the judicial system.
"It’s a simple way of saying, I’m just going to shift my perspective. Stop seeing problem kids, start seeing problem behaviors, and attack the problem behavior," said Michael Valerio, dean of students at the Sarah J. Rawson School in Hartford. "Because that makes my school better, it makes my student better; it makes my community better."
Juvenile court Judge Bernadette Conway noted that justice, as with classroom instruction, should be individualized, and should consider each student’s distinct needs. "Children do better if they are diverted from the juvenile court, and appropriate intervention occurs in their home and school life with community-based services and providers," she told the audience of about 100.
"Research clearly reflects that zero-tolerance policies do not result in safer schools," Conway continued. "Zero tolerance polices do, however, increase the number of unnecessary referrals to juvenile court, they do result in lower school test scores and in poorer school climate scores, and it does add to the rate of high school dropouts."
Minority students and students with disabilities are also over-represented in the juvenile court system, a challenge that the program continues to address. Roughly 70 percent of students in the juvenile justice system have a mental illness, according to state data.
The General Assembly tabled a bill in 2012 that sought to tackle the high number of school-based arrests. Jeff Vanderploeg, an executive at CHDI, said the agencies are trying to leverage lawmakers to take SBDI "to scale."
"We’ve really got a promising thing going here," Vanderploeg said. "It’s one of those initiatives that I think is really ready to be expanded."