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West Hartford and the ACLU’s “Hard Lessons” Report

Posted by whforums on December 12, 2008

So, just as forewarning, this is going to be a long post. I fear, not having written it yet, that it’s likely you’re going to have to scroll while reading it.

After reading the ACLU report “Hard Lessons,” I went through and grabbed all the narrative and statistical claims the report made about West Hartford. The real goal of this post is to give those claims a common space (separate from the claims about Hartford and East Hartford) so that we can discuss what the report has to say about our own bubble. The data is both telling and almost surreal in turn, and I have to admit that a secondary reason for separating/compiling this data is to further one of the goals of the ACLU as stated in the report: “this aims … to be the start of a conversation.”

I’ve broken down the information I’ve gleaned from the report into three parts: General Information (including the ACLU’s conclusions and suggestions), Narrative Claims about West Hartford, and Statistical Claims about West Hartford. I’ve numbered each item to facilitate conversation, and I’ve added my own commentary in italics (only where I had something to say).
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General Information

1. The ACLU’s reason for filing this report is that “the trend is toward criminalizing students, not educating them.” The ACLU grants that the racial and ethnic disparities they found in greater Hartford are not localized to greater Hartford, but are real, national problems. It’s unclear to me why our area was chosen for this report.

2. The ACLU is not entirely convinced they have received accurate data from the State Department of Education. If anything, they believe the SDE may be (unintentionally) understating the number of arrests.

3. To solve the problem of school based arrest, the ACLU believes schools and SROs should engage in more ticketing, more preventative work, and should more often attack root causes of problems (issues with mental health, substance abuse, interpersonal issues needing mediation, etc.). Arrest should only occur as an absolute last resort, when school safety is genuinely threatened.

  • It seems to me that West Hartford already does a good deal of preventative work, and yet our arrest rates remain the highest among the three towns studied. Are we too quick to arrest, or do we have greater in-school problems than other districts?

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Narrative Claims about West Hartford

4. SROs in West Hartford, from 2005-2007, were not subject to written policies that describe their duties.

  • This is ridiculous, almost to the point of not seeming believable. I mean, shouldn’t everyone we hire be hired on a contract that specifically outlines their duties, even if there’s the “Other duties as assigned” line tacked onto the end? Without duties, how do we assess outcomes?

5. SROs in West Hartford do not receive mandatory training as SROs, though some do pursue or receive training. One West Hartford SRO reported receiving more than 100 hours of relevant training.

  • Given the time and money spent on professional development in WHPS, I’m pretty sure our SROs are well trained.

6. Neither WHPS nor the WHPD maintains school based arrest data in an accessible form. When the ACLU asked the WHPD for this data, they responded that the request did not “coincide with the categories in which we store the information”. The WHPD had staffers seek and gather the data from their records for the ACLU report. Schools shred all arrest reports at the end of the year.

  • I get the privacy concerns here, and I understand the desire to shred this data. But shouldn’t WHPS be maintaining some sort of generic, anonymous data of the arrests that occur within its purview? How do we measure this important outcome (even if it’s an outcome we don’t desire) if we shred the outcome? It’s as though there’s a will to forget where we’ve failed (to burn the archive, yes?), rather than to study that very thing.

7. From 2005-2007, West Hartford arrested a little more than 30 students between the grades of K-8. This includes the arrest of two Hispanic fourth graders for “insubordination.” Actual percentages are unclear, but the ACLU says African-Americans and Hispanics in grades K-8 were arrested “more” than Whites.

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Statistical Claims about West Hartford

8. In 06-07, there were 5 arrests per 1000 students. 5% of all incidents resulted in arrest (compared to 3 in East Hartford and .5 percent in Hartford).

  • It’s important to note that that number of arrests was much higher in West Hartford in 05-06, suggesting improvement, aberration, or something generally funky in the 06-07 numbers.

9. In 06-07, African American and Hispanic students constituted 24% of the WHPS population but experienced 63% of the arrests.

  • This is unreal to me, and it’s one of the numbers that got a lot of press because it’s so outrageous. Sample sizes are of course small, but show consistency across the two years of the study. If I may adapt the lingo of this, our Internet … W.T.F.?

10. In 05-07, African American students were twice as likely to be arrested as white students for committing the same infraction (“physical altercations”). From 2005-2007, physical altercations in West Hartford were likely to lead to arrests rates of 23% for African Americans, but only 11% for Whites.

  • Chief Strillaci responded directly to this information the day the report was released, arguing that all fights are not made equal. And that, undoubtedly, is true. But this disparity suggests, at best, an unconscious social prejudice that happens to emerge in the place someone went looking for it — the schools.

11. From 05-06 to 06-07, arrests in West Hartford fell sharply, from 121-52. However, the ratio of incident reports to arrests in WH remained higher than in the other districts. West Hartford’s suspension rate was much lower than the other two districts.

  • This I don’t entirely get — if we arrest a student, wouldn’t the school issue its own punishment — a suspension, on top of that arrest? Are we quick to arrest, but slow to suspend? Is suspension considered as much of a last resort as arrest? That seems unlikely, and leaves me confused about the meaning of this number.

12. In 05-06 and 06-07, African-Americans, Hispanics and Whites were arrested in approximately equal numbers in West Hartford, despite the fact that there were far more Whites in the school system. In 05-06 in West Hartford, there were 30 arrests per 1000 Hispanic students, 43 arrests per 1000 African American students, and 5 arrests per 1000 White students. Similar disparities prevailed in 06-07, despite the lower arrest rate as a whole.

13. For drug/alcohol/tobacco incidents in West Hartford, African Americans were likely to be arrested 27% of the time, Hispanic students were likely to be arrested 31% of the time, and Whites were arrested 10% of the time. The ACLU grants that these numbers may be impacted by small sample size.

  • This category seems very broad, and the numbers may also be impacted by the types of offense. It’s one thing for a 16 year old to have a pack of cigarettes on them — and another to have a baggie. The ACLU admits as much in the report.

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So, Why the Disparities?

14. If school based arrests are occurring in numbers that are out of whack, the ACLU asks the following practical question: “What concrete steps can we (that we is “West Hartford” in this case) take to determine the cause and to reduce those disparities?”

15. The report provides one potential reason for the disparities, arguing they are likely the cause of “conscious and unconscious decision making.” They further state that perception of an in-school transgression is largely subjective, claiming that “…research suggests that educators view certain behaviors more harshly when observed in students of color than when observed in white students (e.g., a white student who talks back may be cited for ‘insubordination,’ while an African American student engaging in the same conduct is found to have engaged in ‘threatening.’)”

So, I turn the ACLU’s question over to you. Based on the ACLU’s argument that not all students in West Hartford are being treated the same way (or perhaps you reject the argument or a component of it?):

“What concrete steps can we take to determine the cause and to reduce those disparities?”

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2 Responses to “West Hartford and the ACLU’s “Hard Lessons” Report”

  1. Robert said

    I’ll offer one observation about the WHPS, based admittedly on a single experience with a middle school field trip. Several years ago, I served as a parent chaperone on a trip involving dozens of students from King Philip. During the trip, the kids tended to hang out in small groups with their friends. In one such group, the kids spoke only Spanish. For the most part, teachers avoided speaking to that group, even after it became a bit disruptive. In other words, English-speaking teachers seemed hesitant to interact with the Spanish-speaking kids, beyond whispering “SHHH!” or saying, “Please be quiet.” Only the Spanish-language teacher seemed to be comfortable talking to the students. To this day, I don’t know how many of the English-speaking teachers realized that on one occasion they reprimanded the students as they were discussing the field trip’s activities.

    We can talk diversity to death, but it’s no substitute for trying to meet people we perceive to be “different” on their own ground. If the WHPS really wish to work on diversity, they need to talk to families and community leaders with a sense of humility. Plan some activities which embrace the diversity of our community. Ask the teachers — highly paid, well-trained professionals that they are — to spend a few days learning from their students. It doesn’t matter whether the issue is speaking a language other than English, struggling on a sports team and in classes during the month of Ramadan, or being out of the closet. Before we can teach students in the schools, we need to know more about who they are before and after they are in the schools.

  2. iBlog said

    I’m sitting here discussing your post with my (WHPS-educated) son, who’s now in middle school. He says the two SROs he knows are helpful and “cool” (an African-American man and white woman)- and you wouldn’t want to mess with either one.

    What can we do to change the environment in the schools? I ask my son. He thinks for a minute, and then points out that he has NEVER had an African-American teacher. Ever. Not even in “UA” (Unified Arts) – music, art, gym, tech ed, and health. He says he wishes that he DID . . .

    What does this mean?

    Do we have people of color teaching in our schools? Do we have role models? Do we have teachers who can relate to our diverse students? And what lesson is my white son learning about race?

    Food for thought . . . .

    Oh – and my daughter (in high school) just walked in. Ever had an African-American teacher, I ask? No . . . No . . . . Wait – once, when her art teacher left to have a baby, the long-term substitute was African-American. That’s it.

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