When a child is referred to a Connecticut court, the state's juvenile justice system is largely colorblind.
New state data from 2011 show that whether a youth is black, white or Latino, he has about a 50 percent chance of having his case dismissed. Similarly, about 30 percent of all youths -- regardless of skin color or ethnicity -- receive probation after they are arrested.
But skin color and ethnicity are powerful indicators of which children will be arrested in the first place. In fact, when students are arrested on school property, one of every two will be black or Hispanic.
One-third of children in Connecticut are black or Hispanic, but they make up nearly two-thirds -- about 3,000 -- of all children charged with a crime, according to information provided by the state's Judicial Branch, contributing to the state's poor record in disproportionately locking up children of color, national data from 2010 show.
"We are talking about the existence of a schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline," said Scot X. Esdaile, the leader of the state chapter of the NAACP. "This has been a huge concern of ours for years."
This gross disparity has spurred the creation of state and local initiatives to try to approach the problem at the front end by sensitizing police officers. Also, a bill before the legislature would clearly define when officers in schools should, and should not, be making arrests.
"It's not that black kids are necessarily committing more crimes. It's about how they're treated when [police] do come in contact," said Waterford police Sgt. Andre Parker. "The only way for kids to get into the system is through us. We are the gatekeepers... If we can fix this disparity at our end then that would help a lot of children."
Parker trains police officers through a state program in cultural awareness. Less than one-fifth of the state's police force has received diversity training so far, even though Parker and others say the inequality in arrests by race and ethnicity could be reduced by just making more police officers aware that it is happening.
'You deal with this'
It started with a few curse words between two students at Manchester High School and quickly escalated into shoving. No one was hurt, but the police officer stationed at the school charged the students with breach of peace, intending to make a judge handle the disciplining.
But something different happened this time: The Judicial Branch almost immediately determined that the incident didn't warrant criminal charges and sent the case back to the school to handle.
The Judicial system reports that numerous school cases -- many involving minor offenses -- show up on their doorsteps, leading court officials to ask why local police were asking the courts to get involved.
"We're talking cases where a student has an open can of soda in the hallway, or their pants are sagging below their waist, or they bring tobacco to school. These are all things that do not need to be handled by us," said Cathy Foley Geib, an education and clinical services manager for the Judicial Branch.
"This isn't good for the kids. It is not good for the courts. So let's try to avoid this," she said.
Nationwide and in Connecticut, juvenile arrests have declined steadily over the last several years, but arrests for less serious incidents -- including drug possession and minor assaults -- have increased substantially, reports the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
"We believe that schools possess the insight, judgment and resources necessary to handle these types of incidents without the necessity of court intervention," the letter from the state Judicial Branch to every police department and superintendent reads.
In the first six months of this policy change, the Judicial branch threw back 100 cases to schools. Simultaneously, the courts have experienced a reduction in the number of minor cases police send to the courts.
"Of course the state should be telling schools, 'You deal with this,'" said Lara Herscovitch, a senior policy analyst for the state's Juvenile Justice Alliance. "We suspect there is a huge disparity in which kids are being charged in the first place."
Focus on black students
Data released last month by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights signals that black students, nationally and in Connecticut, are not only more likely to be arrested at school, but are also more likely to be expelled and suspended. Black students are three times more likely than their white classmates to be expelled or suspended. In addition, disabled students of color are significantly more likely to be subjected to seclusion or restraint, according to the report.
In West Hartford, for example, while black students make up 10 percent of students in the district, they represent 22 percent of all suspensions.
Many municipalities across the state, including Enfield, Simsbury and New Haven, have comparable statistis.
The governor's Office of Policy and Management reported that in 2010 the smaller the town, the more likely it is that a black child who gets into some kind of trouble will be referred to court. The state's three largest cities were twice as likely to charge a black juvenile compared with his white peer. In small towns, the OPM report shows, police are seven times more likely to charge a black child.
While a juvenile referred to court has a 50-50 chance of having his case dismissed, regardless of skin color or ethnicity, it is unclear if some children arrested for the same crime receive more harsh punishments. The most recent information comparing those outcomes is six years old.
The first step
"We need to change the culture of how discipline is handled," said Herscovitch of the Juvenile Justice Alliance. "The first step is making sure everyone understands it's a problem."
Child advocates and Judicial officials say the next steps include expanding eligibility into the various diversion programs so fewer black and Hispanic children are sent to juvenile detention facilities. Last year, 74 percent of those committed to live in Department of Children and Families centers were black or Hispanic children.
"Almost every child is a child of color. It's sad," said Martha Stone, the leader of the Center for Children's Advocacy, which represents many of the children that enter the justice system.
Drawing down the arrests at school
Fifteen students in Manchester schools used to get arrested each month. Now that number is about two students a month, the result of a new plan developed by the state to draw down school-based arrests.
"It's not about going in and trying to change the behavior of the kids. It's about changing the behavior and climate of the adults," said Erica Bromley, who works for the town's Youth Service Bureau and helped roll out the new program in Manchester's middle and high schools. "It's about creating interventions at the school level to help a child's behavior improve so it never gets to the point where we are looking at an arrest."
She cited a case in which a student was caught with a small amount of marijuana. Instead of sending him to court, school officials got the child into drug counseling.
When another student was acting out in class, school leaders conducted an intervention during which the girl eventually felt safe enough to confide that she has a rare disease that was contributing to her behavior. She now is receiving special accommodations that have stopped the class disruptions.
A year before, this girl would likely have been sent to a judge for breach of peace, the No. 1 offense students are charged with.
"There were these assumptions that she was acting out because she was bad... but that ended up not being the case," Bromley said. "Behavior issues are often the symptom of another problem."
Even with this drastic reduction in the arrests of Manchester students, a disproportionate number of students getting in trouble are black and Hispanic, reports the Judicial branch.
"We are trying to address that. That's the next step," Bromley said, who had a conference call with national experts on the topic last month.
Redefining the role of police officers
The district's plan completely reorganizes the role of police officers in its schools, and the Manchester Police Department signed an agreement supporting when officers should be making an arrest.
A bill pending before the legislature that would require every district to clearly define the role of police officers has drawn the ire of the Hartford police union, who testified that such a move would "limit the powers of arrest" and create a "dangerous atmosphere for the officer."
Bridgeport police Chief Joseph Gaudett said his department is nearing the final stages of reaching an agreement with the school system on what behaviors their officers can arrest students for.
"We need to understand what kind of behavior is absolutely not going to end in arrest," he said. He expects to get some pushback from his police officer union.
This shift comes as a national report recently found that schools with a designated school law enforcement officer on duty have much higher arrest rates than comparable schools without such an officer.
Nine school districts have signed agreements with their police departments and implemented the state's four-step intervention model -- including Ansonia, Hamden, Norwalk, Norwich, Vernon, Windsor and Region 10 -- all with promising results so far, Geib said.
"We are helping the schools think differently on how they are going to address these issues. [The courts] should be the last stop, not the first," she said.