One Connecticut community — East Hartford — is confronting the problem of racial disparity in school discipline and juvenile arrests, and taking creative steps to address it collaboratively.

In March, the CT Mirror reported on figures released by the State Department of Education regarding the disproportionate rates of expulsion and suspension of students of color in Connecticut.  The article quoted vice-chairwoman of the State Board of Education, Therese Hopkins-Staten, as saying the disparity is rooted in “pre-conceived notions, opinions, regarding students of color.”

On the evening of April 30, a diverse group of East Hartford community members and leaders gathered at New Covenant United Methodist Church to talk about racial disparity, education, and policing.  The gathering included parents and students invited by my organization, Greater Hartford Legal Aid, as well as by New Covenant and other churches, and by community organizations that are part of the East Hartford Community Partners coalition.

A large number of East Hartford officials and elected representatives participated:  State Representatives Henry Genga, Jason Rojas, and Jeff Currey; Town Council Chair Rich Kehoe; Board of Education Chair Bryan Hall and BOE member Dorese Roberts; Police Chief Scott Sansom and Deputy Chiefs Beau Thurnauer and Mack Hawkins.

After screening the CPTV documentary “The Color of Justice,” which focuses on the problem of disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system, audience members were assigned to small groups for conversation.  Each small group was comprised of a mix of people – ranging from teens to police to grand-parents to elected officials – and led by a facilitator trained by Everyday Democracy.  Facilitators included community leaders, GHLA staff, and mental health clinicians from InterCommunity, Inc., which serves East Hartford.

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In the small groups, conversation ranged from adult perceptions of teens to real-life experiences with the police.  At the conclusion of the evening, the groups identified and reported on action steps that could address the problem of racial disparity in school-based arrests, as well as community-police relations more generally.

The April 30 event at New Covenant was only one in a series of steps that East Hartford has taken in the 2014-15 school year to proactively address racial disparity in school discipline and school-based arrests.

In November 2014, “The Color of Justice” was screened for an audience of East Hartford youth social service providers, followed by a panel including Superintendent of Schools Nate Quesnel, Police Chief Sansom, and Rep. Rojas.  Conversation has continued in the monthly meetings of the East Hartford Community Partners group, and in a smaller working group of stake-holders.  Leaders in both the East Hartford Police Department and the East Hartford Public Schools have shared “The Color of Justice” film with their colleagues.

All of this discussion has led to change.  East Hartford city agencies have revamped the East Hartford Juvenile Review Board process to divert more young people away from the courts, towards more community-based alternatives.  East Hartford Youth Services has made outreach efforts to connect with more families and identify their needs.

More change is expected.  The East Hartford Police Department and the East Hartford Board of Education are reportedly close to finalizing a Memorandum of Understanding designed to reduce unnecessary school-based arrests and to implement a graduated response system.

Studies show that implicit racial bias is widespread in the U.S.  They also show that it can be checked more effectively if it is made “salient”— in other words, if we are made aware of our tendencies to be biased.  By raising awareness of the problem of disproportionate minority contact, the ongoing dialogues in East Hartford can help adults to make fairer decisions regarding students and youth.

Giovanna Shay is the director of litigation and advocacy at Greater Hartford Legal Aid.

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