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Report: Educators call police when they need help in Waterbury nearly 200 times in six months

When do the calls to police start? In Waterbury, as young as age four in elementary school.

WATERBURY, Conn. — Shocking new statistics show a lack of mental health resources in Waterbury Schools. Educators in Waterbury called police nearly 200 times for children in their care. Now the Office of Child Advocate in the state is calling for major reforms.

“I think a lot of people were surprised by those numbers, even though those are folks that are aware of this type of problem; the overreliance on law enforcement to respond to children's behavioral health crises in the school system,” says Sarah Eagan, a child advocate for the state. 

When do the calls to police start? In Waterbury, as young as age four in elementary school.

“When a school system in a community doesn't have an adequate and comprehensive support system for students and educators, law enforcement becomes, by default, not by design, mental health first responders,” says Eagan. “That's not law enforcement's job.”

The calls were for behavioral issues, acts of physical aggression or threats of violence. 

Of the nearly 200 calls made to police, 36 children were arrested. Nine were 11 years old or younger. In Connecticut, you can be subject to arrest as young as seven years old. Policymakers, and now the OCA, are recommending the legislature raise that age 12.

“That's what Massachusetts has. Connecticut's is very low, as I said seven years old,” says Eagan. “Internationally, most countries have an age of criminal court jurisdiction that is much higher.“

According to the report, educators at Bunker Hill School called police 33 times in a six month period. Woodrow Wilson School called police 28 times.

In seven of the past 10 years, Waterbury has referred more children to the juvenile justice system than any other court.

Eagan says this shows a need for reallocation in resources towards mental health professionals in schools.

“We need to make a decision collectively, as a state, as a municipality, as superintendents that we're going to invest that money upfront to get teachers and principals and students the support they need and they deserve,” she says.

The State Department of Education released a statement:

Waterbury Public Schools is troubled by the findings of the Office of the Child Advocate and we continue to review and implement services and supports for our most vulnerable students and to respond to students in crisis. Currently, we are transforming our crisis prevention model to Safety Care intervention, a nationally recognized model grounded in applied behavioral analysis and de-escalation techniques, with 300 staff members participating in professional development today and tomorrow.

A number of the incidents referenced in the report took place in our BDLC (Behavioral Disorder Learning Center) program. Waterbury recognizes the need to provide a robust and preventative model for its BDLC program. Under the new administrative structure, the Waterbury Pupil Services Department is actively redesigning the BDLC program to better meet the needs of students. In the Summer of 2020, a Professional Learning Community (PLC) composed of Special Education Supervisors and Principals began re-writing the entrance protocols for the BDLC program. In the redesign of the BDLC, programs will be revised to focus on more positive aspects of supporting students. The programmatic and curricular redesign work will begin in the fall, with teachers joining the PLC.

Waterbury will also be undertaking a districtwide approach to Social Emotional Learning for ALL students, not specific to only special education students, providing ongoing trauma training to our staff inclusive of school guidance counselors, paraprofessionals, behavior technicians, prevention specialists, school psychologists, social workers and speech/language pathologists.

We continue to work collaboratively with the Judicial Branch Court Support Services Division, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, the State Department of Education, the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and the Child Health and Development Institute to reduce the number of arrests. The District’s longstanding relationship with Waterbury Youth Services and the Waterbury Police Department and its offering of diversionary options for students has also been vital. We are heavily invested in our students and their emotional, mental and physical well-being and recognize the work that lies ahead to support them as much as possible.