I was happy to hear that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is turning his focus to the juvenile justice system in his second term, yet found myself experiencing cognitive dissonance.

“We’ve gotta get outside ourselves a little bit and with people who have lost their way temporarily, help them find their way back,” Malloy said while meeting with three young men participating in the DCF-funded Journey for Life program earlier this week. “Sometimes the difference between a life-changing experience and not being caught is very small.”

Indeed. And there’s a big difference between how authorities tend to treat an upper middle class youth with multiple offenses, Mac and Cheese guy Luke Gatti for instance, and a less privileged youth with similar offenses. 

But the inequities of the criminal justice system are a topic for another day. The disconnect with second-term Malloy’s Second Chance Society is that he spent his first term pushing for costly legislation that contradicts the research on keeping young people out of the juvenile justice system in the first place.

A study by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that one out of every four black K-12 students with disabilities was suspended out of school at least one time in 2009-10. This high risk for suspension is a full 16 percentage points higher than the risk for white students with disabilities.

According to a report by the National Center on Disability, 85 percent of incarcerated youth have learning and/or emotional disabilities, yet only 37 percent of these young people received special education in school. Most were either undiagnosed or didn’t receive adequate support in school.

Tell me about it. Bridgeport has had two complaints filed with the state Department of Education in the last two years alleging failures to provide special education services. Regarding the first complaint, state investigators found that under then-Superintendent Paul Vallas, Bridgeport “systematically violated” its IDEA Child Find mandate.

Meanwhile in Hartford, “no-excuses” Achievement First Hartford Academy settled a lawsuit alleging that it had failed to provide special education services and had punished students for behaviors relating to their disability. They promised to “do better,” yet in November a lawsuit was filed in New York citing similar issues at a Brooklyn AF school. Achievement First also topped the chart for elementary school suspensions in 2013.

At that time co-CEOs Dacia Toll and Doug McCurry wrote they’d received a wakeup call: “We recognize that our suspension numbers are simply too high, and we are committed to significantly reducing the numbers.”

The state Board of Education renewed Achievement First Hartford Academy’s charter for 3 years despite these concerns. On Oct. 4, the Courant reported that “only one student has been suspended so far at the Achievement First Hartford Academy Elementary School.”

Yet according to a recent Connecticut Department of Education Report, Achievement First schools still occupy four out of the five top elementary school slots in elementary school suspensions and expulsions and three of the top five in the middle and high school categories. Hartford Academy Elementary School is number two in the state.

Overall, according to the state Department of Education report:

• the suspension rate in the elementary grades in the Public Charter Schools (14 percent) is almost twice that in the 10 Ed-Reform districts (7.3 percent), both of which are substantially greater than the state average (3 percent).

• the suspension rates in the middle grades in the 10 Ed-Reform districts (22.3 percent), the Public Charter Schools (26.3 percent), the Endowed Academies (18.5 percent), and the State School Districts (24.3 percent) are substantially greater than the state average (10.1 percent).

• the suspension rates in the high secondary grades in the Public Charter Schools (29.9 percent) and in the 10 Ed-Reform districts (25.6 percent) are substantially greater than the state average (12.3 percent).

Given this data, and that AF Hartford Academy’s charter is up for renewal this spring, it’s particularly troubling that Gov. Malloy appointed Erik Clemons, a board member of an Achievement First school in New Haven, to the state Board of Education. We trust he will recuse himself on AF’s charter renewal votes based on his conflict of interest.

It’s critical to give young people a second chance once they’ve been in the justice system — but surely it is just as, if not more, important to prevent them from reaching the justice system in the first place.

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Gov. Malloy has also been a strong proponent of the Common Core standards. David Coleman, architect of the English and Language Arts standards, now head of the College Board, to which the State of Connecticut will be paying a fortune in fees for the SATs, disparaged the exposition of opinion and personal narrative, stating: “As you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a [expletive] about what you feel and what you think.”

That’s “Example A” of reformer tunnel vision. As I’ve grown up in this world and created a successful career as a writer, I’ve realized businesses don’t really care about the five paragraph essay, or using complex words when a shorter, clearer word serves the purpose. Yet these writing constructs are being imposed on our kids so they’ll score better on standardized tests. Then we’re treated to the spectacle of Paul Tudor Jones, who has spent big money to promote such policies, complaining that new hires can’t write . Can you spell i-r-o-n-y?

Policymakers need to start thinking holistically instead of in silos, particularly when children are at stake. It’s not just a waste of taxpayer money, it’s contrary to the research on what actually helps our most vulnerable, at-risk students succeed.

For example, studies show that having students use expressive writing in combination with goal setting can help erase the gender and ethnic minority achievement gap.

“There is nothing more important than literacy,” first-term Malloy told parents at the Milner school in 2012. “Not art, not music, not playtime.”

Literacy is, indeed, essential. But for traumatized children — and many children living in poverty suffer from trauma — activities the governor claims aren’t important have important therapeutic benefits.

By eliminating them in favor of drill and kill, we’re not giving kids the chance to learn critical emotion regulation skills.

If second term Malloy is serious about a Second Chance society, he needs to rethink first-term Governor Malloy’s policies in a more holistic way. Otherwise we’re just filling the school-to-prison pipeline.

Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. A former securities analyst, she’s now an adjunct in the MFA program at WCSU, and enjoys helping young people discover the power of finding their voice as an instructor at the Writopia Lab.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

Sarah Darer Littman is a critically-acclaimed author of books for young people. Her latest novel, Some Kind of Hate, comes out Nov. 1 from Scholastic Press.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com or any of the author's other employers.