Harding High School in Bridgeport CtMirror.org file photo

Much has changed since December 2012, when 20 children and six educators were killed while at school in Newtown.

State gun laws have been changed and are among the nation’s toughest. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent securing school buildings to better protect students from outside threats. School safety drills and other security protocols have been enhanced.

“Schools for the most part, I think, have come a long way” in defending against intruders, said Rep. Joe Verrengia, the House chair of the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee and a retired police officer who spent much of his career stationed in West Hartford schools.

School surveillance during a security drill at a Hartford school. The system was largely paid for with state money.

While much of the focus – and funding – has been directed at protecting students from another active shooter, data on Connecticut’s public schools show no decline in a number of much more common school safety issues, such as fights and other physical confrontations.

This lack of progress in stemming aggressive behaviors is happening as student suspension and expulsion rates steadily decline – and as some mental health experts and teachers in Connecticut point out that services aimed at helping children overcome their behavioral issues are not always sufficient. Since the shooting at Sandy Hook, the number of mental health staff that districts employ has grown more slowly than increases in school security staff.

That dynamic has fueled a debate over whether the state’s push to reduce student suspensions and expulsions – and instead provide students with supports so they can stay in school – actually is working to make schools safer.

“Students need to have consequences for their actions,” Benjamin Belancik, a special education teacher in Waterbury, told the legislature’s Education Committee last week.

It’s a debate taking place nationally as well in the aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

Included last week in President Donald Trump’s “Hardening our Schools” plan was the announcement that his education secretary will lead a school safety commission to consider repealing Obama administration school discipline policies. Those policies, announced in January 2014, were aimed at keeping more children in school and reducing glaring racial and ethnic disparities in who gets suspended, expelled or arrested.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has targeted these policies in the aftermath of the school massacre in his state.

“It may have created a culture (that) discourages referral to law enforcement even in egregious cases like the #Parkland shooter,” he tweeted last week. “… Several students have confirmed they reported his stalking & violent threats to school staff, but it was never enough to get him arrested.”

Obama’s discipline policies seemed to be aimed at places like Connecticut, which had the ninth highest suspension rate in the U.S. during the 2014-15 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s research arm. Black and Hispanic students are also much more likely to get into trouble in school compared to their white classmates.

Unchanged: The number of violent incidents

“Classrooms have to be repeatedly cleared when a student becomes violent,” Ava Biffer, a library media specialist in East Haddam, testified before the Education Committee last week.

“The behavior is getting worse,” testified Jennifer Babb, an art teacher at an elementary school in Bridgeport.

“There are so many risks to other students and educators in the classroom, and if other parents actually knew what was happening, they would be shocked,” testified Laurie Degross, a special education teacher in East Hampton.

These teachers were among many – including some who had been assaulted by students – testifying about the dangers they face at school and in support of a bill that would require school leaders to develop plans to specifically address “daily classroom safety” problems, such as assault and harassment. State law already requires safety plans to address bullying, security and responses to emergencies.

The overall number of violent incidents reported in Connecticut public schools has remained pretty stagnant, but this has happened as enrollment has steadily declined – by 3.5 percent since Sandy Hook.

This means the number of violent incidents per 1,000 students has increased, although that calculation does not translate into the proportion of students who have committed violent acts since some students are responsible for multiple offenses.

The number of students being arrested while at school has been inconsistent. In the school year after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, 1,470 were arrested at school. Two school years later, 1,942 were arrested. And then last year, 1,626 were arrested, according to data provided by the Connecticut Judicial Branch.

Meanwhile, the number of students being sent home because they were suspended or expelled has declined by 25 percent since the Sandy Hook shooting. Use of in-school suspensions has decreased by 30 percent.

State leaders and advocates have celebrated these declines, explaining that students are no longer unnecessarily missing school.

“I think we went too far with our punitive approaches,” said Jeffrey J. Vanderploeg, a psychologist and president of the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut (CHDI). “The research is pretty clear that kids who are disengaged and disconnected from strong adult role models and from school, those are some of the most powerful risk factors that are connected with a whole range of negative outcomes that we don’t want for our students.”

The major decrease in suspensions and expulsions largely stems from the fact that many fewer students are getting sent home for violating school policies such as being tardy or not following the dress code. State lawmakers have changed various laws in recent years to limit when students can receive an out-of-school suspension or be expelled.

Suspensions for school policy violations have dropped from slightly more than 87,000 during the 2009-10 school year to just under 52,000 last school year – a 40 percent reduction.

Indicators of School Crime and Safety report / U.S. Department of Education

At the same time, however, some kinds of incidents related to aggressive behavior have increased.

For example, there has been a steady increase in incidents of fighting at school — about 1,800 more since 2010-11. That’s a 12 percent increase. Physical and verbal confrontations also have increased.

However, the most serious offenses, though much less frequent to start with – such as violent crimes and bringing a weapon to school – have decreased significantly.

The number of reported incidents of students being bullied while at school or online by a classmate also has been cut nearly in half over the last five school years, with 825 incidents during 2016-17. It’s unclear how many of those incidents resulted in a student being suspended or expelled.

Mental health staff in schools growing incrementally

Since the school shooting in Florida, hundreds of school climate and mental health experts and organizations across the U.S. have signed onto a “Call for Action” that pushes for more than just hardening schools and tightening gun laws.

“Although security measures are important, a focus on simply preparing for shootings is insufficient. We need a change in mindset and policy from reaction to prevention. Prevention entails more than security measures and begins long before a gunman comes to school,” wrote the coalition, which includes the Connecticut Association of School Psychologists, Connecticut Psychological Association, and numerous professors in the state who study issues related to school climate and safety. “We need a comprehensive public health approach to gun violence.”

In Connecticut, in the two school years after Sandy Hook, districts added almost twice as many full-time security staff as mental health professionals, data from the State Department of Education show. Since then, however, districts have begun to decrease the number of security staff while incrementally increasing mental health staff.

School district leaders have regularly said they must balance hiring security staff to protect students from outside threats against hiring mental health specialists to identify and treat troubled students.

Even with the rapid growth of school security in recent years, there are still far more mental health staff than security staff at schools. Last school year, there were 3,415 full-time social workers, counselors and psychologist compared to 900 security staff.

Traumatic experiences common among students

Two of every five children in Connecticut have experienced at least one adverse, traumatic experience – one of the lowest rates among states, but the same rate as in 2014, reports Child Trends, a nonprofit organization that studies children’s lives.

The Child Health and Development Institute said that in some of the state’s most needy schools where it has worked, trauma rates are even higher, with about half of the students suffering from traumatic events.

These events, ranging from abuse to the incarceration of a family member, can have lasting negative effects on health and well-being throughout life.

Jeffrey J. Vanderploeg, president of the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

“Just like any other condition, if you have diabetes that goes undetected and untreated, you are going to develop significant problems over time. Same thing with blood pressure. Same thing with behavioral health,” said Vanderploeg, the leader of CHDI, which trains school leaders to screen students for behavioral needs and respond to them. “Aggressive behavior tends to be a symptom of certain diagnostic categories but it may not be a feature of others. The label isn’t really the important part. The important part is kids are resilient and can recover from trauma, they can recover from behavioral health conditions if they have the right supports.”

Michelle Glade, a fourth-grade teacher in Avon, testified last week that students aren’t getting that support.

“Students who are disruptive are not receiving the help they need,” she said. “The bottom line is there are many children who are hurting today, more than at any other time in my career. They come into school without having breakfast, disheveled clothes, and emotional issues due to the family dynamics – arguing divorced parents, mom’s boyfriend, breadwinner has lost his/her job, and neglect – some children never have a chance to just sit down with their parents and spend quiet time. My heart breaks.”

A teacher from Oxford testified about an incident in which a child brought a knife to school with the intention of hurting a classmate and returned to school after a one-day suspension.

“He continues to verbally abuse staff and disrupt class on a daily basis. The safety plan in place for this child is for the teacher to get students out of the room if he becomes violent,” said Karen Giannamore, an art teacher.

These teachers believe a measure in the bill they were supporting could help: a requirement that school districts employ at least one social worker for every 250 students, a ratio most schools in Connecticut are far from achieving.

The legislature’s fiscal office has not released how much such a mandate would cost. However, such a requirement is ambitious given the pushback legislators would surely face if they implemented such a mandate and didn’t provide the funding to support it. The state would have a difficult time picking up the tab given the massive fiscal challenges it is facing. Also, the state’s Supreme Court recently ruled that legislators are not required by the state constitution to address non-academic challenges that may be impeding student learning, such as trauma or other mental health issues.

The state’s current approach

Connecticut’s public schools have a hodgepodge of programs to address behavioral challenges.

Districts are not required to participate in any specific program, although the state education commissioner said the 30 lowest-performing districts academically all have plans to improve school climate.

“We think we are making great strides,” said Commissioner Dianna Wentzell during a press conference last week at which she and the governor blasted President Trump’s proposal to arm some teachers.

A sign explaining how students should behave while walking through the hall at an elementary school in the Hartford region. The school uses the PBIS model to improve student behavior..

A common strategy to improve student behaviors is a nationally recognized program called Positive Behavioral Interventions & Support, commonly referred to as PBIS.

“The standards call attention to the positive things that you should be doing. Traditional school rules outline all the things we don’t want to see in schools,” said Brandi Simonsen, the co-director of the University of Connecticut’s Center for Behavioral Education and Research.

This approach helps school staff screen students who are displaying behavioral challenges, and ideally directs them to the supports they need.

“PBIS is the foundation for prevention,” Simonsen explained. “It’s a tool to identify needs and interventions.”

Experts in behavioral health at the University of Connecticut, the State Education Resource Center and the State Department of Education have helped support districts interested in implementing PBIS through a federal grant.

Between 2006 and 2015, the number of schools actively adopting PBIS took off, data from the state education department shows. However, over the last two school years, growth has slowed. Last school year, 480 schools used the PBIS model – which is nearly one-third of the state’s public schools.

The state also has looked to CHDI to help train school staff to screen for student needs and support students when they act out. Instead of asking what’s wrong with a student when they misbehave, for example, teachers may be trained to ask students what happened to them.

“It’s important to create a safe and supportive climate,” said Vanderploeg.

School staff also need to know that help is a phone call away when student behavior does reach a crises level – such as throwing chairs and desks at staff, as teachers testified last week had happened in their schools. By calling 2-1-1 a mental health professional can be called to a school, typically within 45 minutes, to help diffuse a situation and set up students with long-term supports outside of school.

Awareness of this Mobile Crisis Intervention Service is growing. The number of responses to schools jumped from 2,818 in 2011 to 5,637 last school year. The goal, Vanderploeg said, is to avoid having the police or an ambulance called when a student is in crisis.

Asked if there are enough services to provide supports after the crisis intervention, Vanderploeg said he was unsure.

“Look, if the only thing that ends up happening is they end up on a waitlist, then that’s not good…. I think there probably are certain sections of the behavioral health services array where there are wait lists,” he said. “Having more capacity is rarely going to be a bad thing.”

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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