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Waterbury leads CT in school arrests. Now, it's rethinking how police take kids into custody

Data shows far more kids are arrested in school in Waterbury than any other school district in the state. The Waterbury Police Department is using their program, P.A.L (Police Activity League), to try and change that.
Ayannah Brown
Connecticut Public
Data shows far more kids are arrested in school in Waterbury than any other school district in the state. The Waterbury Police Department is using their program, P.A.L (Police Activity League), to try and change that.

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The Waterbury School District has more student arrests than any other district in the state. It’s a problem that’s been happening for years, but now district leaders and the local police say recent policy changes should reduce the number of arrests.

State data shows Waterbury Public Schools reported 235 school-based arrests in the 2021-22 school year, while Waterbury police data shows there were 283 school-based arrests – more than one arrest for every school day. Superintendent Verna Ruffin said the number the school system reported to the state previously was lower than the police department’s internal figures because it didn't include some arrests off-campus, such as at bus stops, on buses, or at school events.

The Connecticut Technical Education and Career System had the next highest number of arrests, with 90. Waterbury has consistently reported far more arrests than any other school district since at least the 2017-18 school year, according to state data.

Narlin Chimbo Once, a former student in the district who graduated in 2021, said the school resource officers who carry out the arrests in schools made her uneasy.

“As a person of color, I felt very wary of [school resource officers]. Even in middle school, I kind of felt a little anxious,” she said. “It can be a very traumatic thing to witness your peers getting arrested.”

She preferred to avoid interacting with police, but said some of her peers had a range of interactions including some that were positive and some that were negative.

“I saw them arresting a lot of kids, but I also saw some of them interact positively with kids,” she said. “It was a very confusing relationship.”

Waterbury has recently received criticism around the policing of its schools. An investigation in the 2018-19 school year by the state Office of the Child Advocate found police were called roughly 200 times to pre-K through eighth grade schools in Waterbury, often for mental health disturbances, and for incidents involving children as young as 4 years old.

The report recommended the state prohibit the use of embedded police in schools, track the use of police and 911 calls in schools, raise the minimum age of arrest to 12, and prohibit the suspension of elementary school children. It also recommended Waterbury reduce the number of arrests, provide more training for officers and draft an agreement between the police department and school district with new descriptions of the roles of school resource officers.

Acting on those recommendations, the community adopted new protocols in February, which are showing early signs of success in reducing school-based arrests, according to Waterbury Police Chief Fernando Spagnolo.

“We wanted to add a layer of supervision to the process,” he said. “As of Feb. 8 of this year, that school resource officer had to call for a supervisor to review the circumstances of the incident prior to the arrest."

From February through the end of the school year in June, there were 15 arrests, according to Spagnolo. In the same period last year, there were 141 arrests, he said.

There are nine school resource officers in the district, along with a supervisor. The officers have good relationships with students, Spagnolo said, and some have even graduated from the schools they now patrol. The police department has also attempted to bridge the gap between children and police officers through the Police Activity League, where officers organize athletic, recreational, and educational activities and engage with children in the community.

Fernando Spagnolo, Chief of Waterbury Police.
Ayannah Brown
Connecticut Public
Fernando Spagnolo, Chief of Waterbury Police.

But within the state, opinions differ on the fundamental question of whether police should be present in school buildings at all. Christina Quaranta, executive director of the Connecticut Justice Alliance, said the model of embedding officers in the building remains problematic, particularly for children of color.

“Mostly young people who are Black and brown, or have disabilities, are at the end of having more interaction with police than others,” she said. "So that's a problem. I think lots of the times that kids are arrested in school, it's for issues that could be handled by teachers or other classroom assistants. It could be handled with the help of family members.”

Waterbury school arrest data shows 11 of the 283 students arrested in 2021-22 were white and non-Hispanic or Latino. That’s almost 4%. White students made up about 12% of the total student population that year. Most of the arrests in the 2021-22 school year were for offenses like breach of peace or assault. These charges are usually related to fights between students that don’t result in injuries, according to local officials.

Robbie Goodrich, a former Waterbury Public Schools teacher, and the executive director of the grassroots advocacy group Radical Advocates for Cross-Cultural Education, said insufficient funding has been a persistent problem for the school district.

“You have extreme amounts of poverty,” he said. “There aren’t the economic opportunities that traditionally exist, which affect the amount of school funding and overall general quality of life.”

The School and State Finance Project, which describes itself as a nonpartisan policy organization, found that Waterbury spends roughly $2,500 less per student than the average amount statewide.

Ruffin, the Waterbury superintendent, said the school district was also hampered last year by a shortage of teachers. It had more than 200 unfilled positions at the beginning of the year, and has stayed around that number. The district currently has 1,400 teachers, according to a spokesperson.

“We had teachers that took on more students,” Ruffin said. “We had teachers that took on more classes.”

Ruffin said the teacher shortage may have contributed to the number of behavioral problems at schools. She hopes the new protocols will help curb police involvement with discipline.

“It takes several layers now to be able to determine if that is an arrestable offense, or if that's an offense that needs to be handled at the campus level,” she said. “And we have those protocols in place now.”

Ashad Hajela is CT Public's Tow Fellow for Race, Youth and Justice with Connecticut Public's Accountability Project. He can be reached at ahajela@ctpublic.org.

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