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Board hopefuls talk discipline in city schools

MERIDEN — While the suspension, expulsion and arrest rate has gone down throughout the school system, Board of Education candidates say more can be done to deter bad behavior while finding alternatives to severe punishment.

Several school board candidates have suggested alternatives to suspensions and expulsions such as having students participate in community service or city work. Some candidates have said that if more guidance counselors and staff support were offered in the schools, it would prevent students from making bad decisions. Most were pleased with the school system’s progress and want to see the suspension, expulsion and arrest rate continue to decrease.

“I think you need to have to have some kind of discipline,” said Niki Carabetta, a We the People Party candidate. “I think in-school suspensions are better than (out-of-school suspensions). Students can still do their work.”

City schools had the highest rate of student arrests statewide in the 2010-11 school year, according to a report last month by Connecticut Voices for Children. School officials have said they were aware of the high arrest rate and have worked hard over the past two years to reduce the number.

There were 230 students arrested in Meriden in the 2010-11 school year, the most recent data available, according to the nonprofit group. That was the highest rate per 1,000 students in Connecticut, though Waterbury schools, a larger district, had a higher total number of arrests: 310.

In 2011-12 there were 91 student arrests and last year there were 106 arrests, Meriden school officials said.

Carabetta said school isn’t just about academics anymore — students are going through tough times and are troubled. She said more guidance counselors and social workers are needed to work with students.

“I think communication is huge with the kids,” Carabetta said. “Kids don’t act out for no reason.”

Teaching students coping skills is another thing schools should do, Carabetta said, so they learn how to deal with emotions and situations.

Democratic candidate Kyle Abercrombie echoed some of the statements Carabetta made. He said there needs to be an increase in social workers and mental health professionals in the schools.

“Keeping kids in the classroom is the ultimate goal,” Abercrombie said.

Increasing the number of counselors may be a preventative way of keeping students out trouble, he said. Some student actions can be a result of issues at home or just acting out in general, he said.

“These are things that need to be looked at deeper,” Abercrombie said. “It starts with mental health.”

He noted that the school system has done a good job in bringing suspension and expulsion rates down, but the numbers are still “way too high.”

Republican incumbent Scott Hozebin said that when he got on the board over a decade ago, he started a committee that focused on alternatives to expulsions. The committee was able to shorten the length of an expulsion by offering students the option of doing community service. While that helps students get back in the classroom sooner, Hozebin would like to see some restorative justice.

Instead of a suspension, it would be more effective if a student had to do something for the offense they committed. For example, Hozebin said, if a student spat on another student, they would have to create a poster about respect and why it’s important to respect others.

“I would like to see more of that,” Hozebin said.

Hozebin also said teachers and administrators need to be more consistent in discipline. Teachers can’t handle the same situation differently, he said. If a student is violating the dress code, all teachers have to handle it the same way; one just can’t ignore it while another sends a student to the office.

The types of offenses that get students arrested also need to be looked at, Hozebin said. An arrest has a negative effect on a student and can put them in a vicious cycle, he said. Arrests should be reserved for the most egregious offenses, Hozebin said.

Republican incumbent Kim Carbone-Pandiani said many arrests are state-mandated and the school system can do nothing about them. If a student brings in a weapon or is caught selling drugs, that results in an arrest.

Carbone-Pandiani, like other candidates, said the goal is to keep students in school and provide continuous learning.

“We don’t want to take kids out of the learning environment,” she said. “We don’t want to disrupt that.”

She said the school system has done a good job bringing numbers down. It’s also willing to listen to students who have committed first offenses and make sure they get back on track.

Incumbent Democrat Steve O’ Donnell said parents need to be more involved in their children’s lives in order to continue to keep the suspension, expulsion and arrest rate down. The school system can try to get parents more active in the school system through events and open houses. When parents are more active, it tends to keep students out of trouble, he said. When an offense occurs, parents and schools can work together to figure something out, O’Donnell said.

Jim Ming, a We the People Party candidate, said that, as a way to reduce such severe punishments, students need to learn at an early age that when they commit an offense there will be a punishment.

“They have to know that when they do something wrong, there’s a price to pay,” Ming said. “They have to know poor behavior is not tolerated.”

When a student does act out, Ming said, instead of community service, perhaps doing work for the city would be a better punishment. He said having students clean up a park or a river may give them a sense of self-pride. They’ll feel like they did something and will hopefully learn their lesson, he said.

Incumbent Democrat Michael Cardona and We the People Party members Nancy Luca-Kenney and Jerry Staszewski could not be reached for comment. (203) 317-2279 Twitter: @KPrimicerioRJ

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