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Report: Meriden student arrest rate highest in state in 2011, officials say rate has declined significantly

Meriden student arrests 2010-11

K-6th grade – 10

7th and 8th grades – 39

9th and 10th grades – 133

11th and 12th grades – 48

Breakdown of arrests by race

Black – 54 (out of 1,047 students enrolled)

Hispanic – 145 (out of 3,902 students enrolled)

White – 28 (out of 2,946 students enrolled)

MERIDEN — City schools had the highest rate of student arrests statewide during the 2010-11 school year, according to a report issued Thursday by Connecticut Voices for Children. City school officials 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 during the 2010-2011 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 with 310.

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

“The issue is they’re using old data rather than current,” said School Superintendent Mark D. Benigni. “When a report comes out using outdated data it doesn’t recognize the work that’s occurred in the schools over the last two years.”

Benigni added that schools don’t make arrests, police do.

“If a student is breaking the law, the law needs to be enforced,” he said.

Information for the study was collected from the Department of Education’s “Serious Incident Reporting Form.” If school discipline involved an arrest the school system is supposed to check off a specific box on the form. Unless an audit is conducted, there’s no way of knowing if the form was filled out correctly.

It’s not clear from the form if the arrest stemmed from an incident on school property. The study urges the state to come up with clear definitions of student arrests and school arrests so more accurate information can be reported.

Platt and Maloney high schools and Lincoln Middle School ranked in the top 20 for student arrest rates among individual schools during the 2010-11 school year, according to the non profit group. The data include incidents on and off school grounds.

The school system has pursued grant programs and worked with the city’s Juvenile Assistance and Diversion Program to help students get on the right path, Benigni said. Administrators and school resource officers are attending training this fall developed by the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee.

Connecticut Voices for Children, a New Haven-based advocacy organization, conducted the study. Sarah Esty, author of the study and a policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children, said student arrests cause a range of negative outcomes, including high dropout rates. Overall, the study showed the number of student arrests in the state are down, though more work can be done and schools can learn from each other, Esty said.

Tammy Kudla, community youth service worker at the city’s Health Department, runs the Juvenile Assistance and Diversion Program and works closely with Meriden police. When juveniles become first-time offenders, they can either be issued a summons to court or be referred to the diversion program.

“Instead of going to court they come to the program,” Kudla said. “If they don’t comply they can be deferred to court.”

Many of the juveniles sent to her have committed crimes like breach of peace, disorderly conduct or assault, she said. The Connecticut Voices for Children study found that many students were arrested for behaviors that were probably not criminal and could have been handled without police involvement. Kudla said that wasn’t true of the cases she has seen. The arrests aren’t unwarranted, she said.

Before Kudla sees the juvenile, the youth and their guardian have to sign a release form. Then they meet in her office and talk about the incident, home life and their involvement in the community. Eventually the student goes before a review board made up of several community members including Kudla, police officers, school officials and clergy. The student presents the case and the board decides on the consequences. Sometimes it’s community service, counseling or writing a letter of apology, Kudla said. About 90 percent of the youth she sees follow through, Kudla said.

“We’re working hard and the ultimate goal is to have students not get arrested,” she said.

The study addressed the disproportionate arrest rates for black and Hispanic students compared to white students, finding that “students of color are much more likely to be arrested than white students — 3.7 times more for black students and 3.2 for Hispanic students.” In Meriden, 54 black students were arrested in 2010-11 and 145 Hispanic students, compared to 28 white students.

State Rep. Hilda Santiago, D-Meriden, said the findings show that more work needs to be done in the community to reach out to young people, adding that urban school districts face greater challenges in keeping kids off the streets, including economic barriers.

“There needs to be more ways to get kids out of trouble,” she said.

Some large school systems, like Bridgeport and Hartford, had arrest rates close to the state average. Esty said that could be attributed to the initiatives and programming they’ve been working on over the past several years.

Meriden Federation of Teachers President Erin Benham called the high arrest rate “horrible,” but said safety is essential. “There are things that happen, they have to be reported,” Benham said. “It’s important students know, we’re not going to condone certain behaviors.”

Benham pointed out that many student arrests don’t occur on school grounds. She was also curious about whether other districts were reporting arrests correctly, she said.

“We don’t ignore and we don’t take it lightly,” she said. “It’s hard for teachers, because you don’t want to see it happen, but you want schools to be safe.”

She said the secondary schools were fortunate to have resource officers who work with staff and students to prevent incidents. (203) 317-2279 Twitter: @KPrimicerioRJ

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