Amidst proposed cuts in certain adult education and summer school programs, Gov. Dannel Malloy is looking to expand funding for the School-Based Diversion Initiative, a program that has reduced in-school arrests by linking students to community-based services.
Malloy is seeking $1 million each year for the next two fiscal years so that Connecticut’s SBDI can expand to an additional 18 to 24 schools per year. The expansion, included in the governor’s budget proposal, is currently pending legislative approval. Adam Joseph, the director of communications for the Senate Democrats, said the Connecticut General Assembly’s finance and appropriations committees are currently holding hearings on the budget, and he expects the legislature to vote on the budget in May.
“We’re very excited about the proposed expansion to our initiative … and are happy to see it expand throughout the state of Connecticut,” said Jeana Bracey, senior associate at the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut, which has coordinated SBDI since its creation in 2009. “We think [SBDI] is very important and timely and can help a lot of additional schools in our state.”
In the 21 schools across the state that have implemented SBDI, school staff and school-based law enforcement officers are trained to recognize when disruptive behaviors in the classroom are a result of mental health difficulties, according to Bracey. They are taught to then link those students to specific services and support systems rather than referring them to the juvenile court system. Participating schools have reduced court referrals by 45 percent on average in their first year of implementation, according to Bracey.
Connecticut’s Court Support Services Division reported that, between 2011 and 2012, students were most commonly referred to court for offenses such as breach of peace, third-degree assault, disorderly conduct and threatening. Bracey said these offenses make up two-thirds of student court referrals and stem from minor behavior and school policy violations such as fighting.
William Carbone, professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven and director of its Tow Youth Justice Institute, said that, at times, students’ refusals to take off their hats or pull up their pants have lead to arguments and swearing that resulted in an arrest. Carbone previously served as the executive director of Connecticut’s Court Support Services Division, which provided funding to pilot SBDI during his tenure.
“No one would suggest that someone who is committing a serious assault or someone who is damaging public property shouldn’t be arrested,” Carbone said. “But if you really look at things kids get arrested for, the offenses are fairly minor.”
Carbone also highlighted that court referrals are unproductive. He said that when more students are sent to court for minor offenses, their behavior tends to escalate when they return to the classroom, making it more likely that they will find themselves in court again.
Bracey added that research shows that students with mental health difficulties — including anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation — face subsequent difficulties with academics after arrest, suspension or expulsion.
SBDI encourages referral to Emergency Mobile Psychiatric Services, which is a toll-free service that responds to child behavior crises over the phone or in person. Additionally, it recommends employment of a graduated response model, which uses more restorative measures such as parent-teacher conferences before resorting to punishments.
Bracey added that EMPS providers come to SBDI schools to do outreach presentations and inform the school of local mental health service providers. Participating schools have increased EMPS referrals by 94 percent, she added.
Bracey said additional schools have not been chosen yet and that the proposed funds will mostly go to training school staff and paying for materials and supplies.