Madeline Stocker photo
Ibrahmin Adegona, a student from Bridgeport talks about his experiences (Madeline Stocker photo)

When most people think about the reasons behind high school suspensions, they recall a variety of circumstances — a fight broke out in the hallway, a school prankster got caught in the act, someone vandalized the school cafeteria.

But for others, the reasons are less clear-cut, and often less extreme. They got caught having an argument in the hallway, or maybe raised their voice to a teacher.

The difference between these two groups of experiences is clear, says Hamden High School student Joyhissa Bouknight. Although there are certainly exceptions, the first set of circumstances are more serious in nature and Bouknight said they usually lead to suspensions for white students. The second group of circumstances are less serious, but she said they are generally enough to cause minority students to be suspended.

Bouknight was one of three black students who spoke at Tuesday’s conference at the State Capitol on the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.” She said that in her experience, disciplinary action for black and brown students is more severe because they are often singled out by the police officers roaming the halls of their schools.

She said that raising her voice in the hallway nearly got her suspended.

“They called all the security guards that were in the school and blew it completely out of proportion. They blew it completely out of proportion, and they never did that with other kids. With the white kids. I feel like we’re treated differently than they were,” Bouknight said.

According to a report released earlier this year by Connecticut Voices for Children, the number of students suspended or expelled from schools has declined, as have in-school arrests, but minority students face disciplinary action more often than their white peers. That report found that black students were nearly five times more likely to be arrested, five times more likely to be expelled, and more than six times more likely to be suspended out of school than white students.

In the 2013 school year there were 2,391 school-based arrests, 40,897 out-of-school suspensions, 72,678 in-school suspensions, and 984 expulsions, according to the report.

Ibrahmin Adegona, a student from Bridgeport, said that his experience with his school’s disciplinary actions turned him from student council president and honor roll student to someone who no longer wanted to attend class.

“Once you miss school, you lose all hope and all spirit to catch up because everyone’s so far ahead,” Adegona said. “If a baby cries you don’t beat it. That’s just not how you do things.”

Lawmakers, educators, advocates, and activists across the state have been individually working toward finding solutions to the pipeline for years, but Tuesday marked the first time they convened to address the issue.

The conference featured remarks from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a keynote address from former State Title IX Coordinator Bill Howe, and two panels of educational, legal, and legislative experts.

Several ideas for how to end the school-to-prison pipeline where offered.

The first suggestion was to end “zero tolerance” policies, which punish students regardless of the circumstances.

Zero tolerance policies have increased the suspension rate by nearly 40 percent from 1972 to 2010, and the policy has been criticized for having virtually no impact on drugs and violence in schools.

Howe said that, in his experience with Connecticut’s education system, zero tolerance policies often have adverse effects, and lead to the suspension and expulsion of students who committed infractions, as simple as accidentally knocking down a trophy case.

Madeline Stocker photo
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy (Madeline Stocker photo)

Other suggestions included providing more outlets for after-school activities and exploring early mental health diagnoses.

For Stephen Hernández, director of Public Policy and Research for the Connecticut Commission on Children, one of these necessary topics of discussion is the intersection between race and class.

“It’s a well-funded infrastructure,” Hernández said. “Students with promise and bright futures enter with a steady expectation that they will fail. A steady expectation that the color of their skin or wherever they’re from in the state of Connecticut . . . determines how we’re going to treat them and what’s expected from our children.”

Malloy said he believed the state is making good progress on the disparities between discipline and policing throughout Connecticut’s schools.

He said the majority of this progress came from the Connecticut School-Based Diversion Initiative, which he credited with reducing the total number of suspensions and expulsions in Connecticut schools by 8.5 percent, with a 40 percent reduction in court referrals. The program trains staff on how to respond to bad behavior without relying on the more severe options like suspension or arrest.

The current budget expands the program to cover 12 additional school districts. There are currently 21 covered.

“We’re passing the laws, we’re passing the funding, and we’re gathering all of us together to make sure that this is carried on,” Malloy said.

But, asked by the moderator if they were seeing the changes to which the governor alluded, the students said they weren’t convinced.

“The school didn’t try at all to resolve anything, or to talk to me,” Adegona said.

Bouknight attributed the disconnect between her experiences and Malloy’s talk of progress to two factors — racism and classism.

“They’re comparing me to people who have way more money than I do. They have way more resources than I have. You can’t treat me like that,” she said.

Recognizing this disparity in treatment and acknowledging the racist systems in place throughout our schools is a necessary first step toward making reparations, Hernández said in his closing remarks.

“In the context of race and class, we have to admit to ourselves that we’re afraid of our young African American and Latino kids and that when we say ‘making schools safe’ it means getting those kids out of school,” he said.