Meriden can’t get a break: First Connecticut magazine ranks it dead last among state municipalities as a place to live, and then Connecticut Voices for Children reports that the Meriden school district had the highest student arrest rate in the 2010-11 school year — more than twice as high as Danbury, twice as high as the state technical high schools and almost twice as high as New Britain. And all of those systems are bigger than Meriden’s.
To be fair, Meriden school officials have been working to lower the arrest rate — from a high of 27.8 arrests per 1,000 students in 2010-11 — and the numbers have been coming down: There were 230 students arrested in 2010-11 but just 91 in 2011-12. And yet, the statewide numbers have been coming down as well, and for several years, making for a 13.5 decline since 2008, overall.
One notable finding of the Connecticut Voices report is that more than a third of the offenses for which students were arrested either were not criminal, and likely could have been handled without calling the police, or were questionably necessary. And while arrest rates for minority students and low-income students were generally higher, somehow that fact did not place the state’s three biggest and poorest cities on the high-arrest-rate list.
Meriden is on the top-ten list of systems with high arrest rates, but not Bridgeport; New Britain has a high rate, but New Haven doesn’t; ACES, Ansonia and West Haven are on the list, but Hartford isn’t. “Arrest rates vary tremendously across school districts and even among schools within a single district,” according to the report, while there are districts with similar demographics that have huge differences in arrests rates.
So something else must be going on here, and the report suggests that that something may be a substantial variation in school practices, from one school to another and certainly from one system to another. There are really no concrete, uniform criteria for what kind of behavior calls for a detention, vs. an in-school suspension, vs. an outside suspension, vs. calling the cops. Some arrests are mandated under state law, but in other cases the school system has a lot of discretion.
What this state of affairs would seem to recommend are statewide standards for school discipline — but the Connecticut Voices report indicates that we don’t even have townwide standards in many municipalities. It’s difficult enough for every principal to make sure his teachers are applying discipline in an even-handed way, and for every superintendent to maintain a similar kind of uniformity across all the schools in her district. But how much harder would it be to apply uniform standards statewide — especially here in New England, where we pride ourselves on the fact that every town can run its own schools and make its own rules?
So don’t count Meriden’s school system out — not by a long shot. The suspension, expulsion and arrest rates are headed in the right direction — downward — and that’s good cause for optimism.