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Demand for behavioral, legal services surges as CT children return to school

Visual representations of emotions, helpful for students struggling to find the right words for their feelings, hang in the offices of a school based health center.
Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
Visual representations of emotions, helpful for students struggling to find the right words for their feelings, hang in the offices of a school-based health center.

Demand for legal services from Connecticut families in selected cities rose 74% after children returned to in-person school, according to a report.

The report, based on families in Hartford, Waterbury, Bridgeport and New Haven, was produced by the Center for Children’s Advocacy (CCA), a nonprofit that aims to protect the legal rights of low-income children while providing them with behavioral and other services they need to thrive.

Chronic absenteeism persisted in urban schools prior to COVID-19, and it hasn’t gotten much better, said Martha Stone, an attorney and executive director at the Hartford-based CCA.

Those back in school from remote learning are struggling with discipline issues, Stone said.

“We are representing kids on suspensions and expulsions, which really doesn’t help them because they’re out of school for 180 days sometimes.” she said. “We are representing kids who have special needs.”

For example, CCA points to a 6-year-old who had been placed in a regular kindergarten classroom, despite having a significant behavioral health condition.

The report stated that the child frequently had disruptive behaviors in the classroom and his teacher, who was not trained in special education, resorted to making frequent calls to his parents to pick him up and remove him from school for the rest of the day. As a result, the student was missing school, and his parents were at risk of losing their jobs because the teacher was frequently calling them to the school.

CCA represented the child and officials say they got him transferred to a school that specializes in educating students with his behavioral health condition. The 6-year-old is able to stay in school for a full day, and his behavior and academic achievement have improved, officials said.

Stone said CCA’s legal teams are also working on alternatives to child arrests for disorderly conduct.

“There’s a huge problem in Waterbury, in particular, where the police are called to manage behaviors when the other cities are able to manage the behaviors in a different kind of way,” she said. “They are arrested for disorderly conduct, breaching the peace. They’re arrested for fighting.”

The behavioral needs run the gamut. CCA’s clients reported dysregulation of emotions – or the inability to control emotional responses – in kids coming back to school in the lower grades.

“There’s kids who are coming back at the high school level who are missing credits,” Stone said. “Repeat ninth graders for the second and third time. And then there are kids that just aren’t going. Don’t want to go back. And so we have a lot of kids with school refusal issues.”

That could mean finding school alternatives for some children, she pointed out, or relying on school counselors – a challenge when money from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to fund their pay dries up.

Stone said she worries that Connecticut will lose generations of kids “because they’re going to be school dropouts.”

Sujata Srinivasan is Connecticut Public Radio’s senior health reporter. Prior to that, she was a senior producer for Where We Live, a newsroom editor, and from 2010-2014, a business reporter for the station.

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