Video posted to the Waterbury Observer Facebook page of the incident.

A fight broke out between two male students of Waterbury’s West Side Middle School as classes were being dismissed on Sept. 20. Both students were arrested.

It’s hard to discern from a grainy video clip posted on a local news website whether an officer was kneeling on the back of one of the students or simply kneeling near the boy’s head to get him handcuffed.

The scene drew fire from advocates who say that Waterbury school officials need to stop calling police on students, the majority of whom are children of color.

“It is high time for the Waterbury public school system to end their unhealthy, unjust and unnecessary reliance on Waterbury police officers and make our schools a more healthy learning environment for our Black and Brown students,” Michaela Barratt, a youth organizer with the city-based advocacy group, Radical Advocates for Cross-Cultural Education, said. 

But in the months since state Child Advocate Sarah Eagan issued a 34-page report citing the Waterbury school system for over-reliance on police to deal with behavioral issues in young children, local officials said school administration and police are still working on those changes. 

“The resources that the superintendent of schools (Verna Ruffin) put in place have been of great assistance,” Waterbury Police Chief Fernando Spagnolo said. “They have reduced the amount of calls that probably police shouldn’t have been involved in anyway.”

Superintendent Verna Ruffin says she and the district were already working on reducing the number of calls to police and student arrests when Eagan’s report came out. The school system has roughly 18,000 students; 57% are Hispanic and 21% are Black, according to a state Department of Education district profile.

“We never denied we needed a lot of work,” Ruffin said Thursday. “There was significant progress made before the report came out.”

Ruffin said the system has built strong partnerships with police and other stakeholders to look at the root causes of behavioral issues and respond to the needs of students. 

“Our work has, and will, continue,” she said.  

An investigation by Eagan concluded in a 2020 report that officers were called more than 200 times in a six-month span to deal with behavioral issues in children from preschool to grade 8 during the 2018-19 school year.  

The calls led to 36 arrests including criminal charges for nine children under the age of 12, Eagan said Wednesday. “We know kids need more support,” Eagan said. “It’s not about the disparagement of law enforcement, it’s about ensuring that our schools and other settings where children are have the resources to engage and support children. “

Her report details more than 40 in-school incidents involving children as young as 7, 8 and 9 years old who were “banging their heads, tying things around their neck and expressing that they wanted to die.” When police were called, some of the children were handcuffed, officers said, “for their own safety and the safety of others.”

Other behaviors noted in police reports included children threatening to harm others, hitting, punching and kicking other students or school staff. Other police reports involved children fighting, Eagan said. Some of the children were described by police as having a disability or “special needs,” she said. “The children with the most reports were identified in police records as children with Autism,” Eagan’s report said.

During the six-month period which ran from September 2018 to March 2019, Eagan found that more than half of Waterbury schools had called police more often than mobile crisis teams. There were 85 children age 8 and under who were the subject of a police report, Eagan said.

“The answer to all of this unrest that children are experiencing can’t be law enforcement,” Eagan said. “The answer has to be about prevention, engagement, restoration, as in restorative justice and support. The number of schools in the state that have a police response as opposed to a social work response is not close.”

Eagan is calling for Waterbury, which is a high-needs district, to have better social service supports in terms of housing and food security for students. She also recommends that the school system find ways to address children’s needs educationally with embedded mental health supports, and that the school system partner with mental health providers to see to kids’ basic needs and behavioral health.

After Eagan’s report was released, the CSDE stepped in and issued a “comprehensive system of support workgroup” plan to reduce the number of student suspensions and arrests and provide better student mental health support.

“The CSDE monitors the implementation of the strategies annually with the Waterbury leadership team through focused monitoring meetings three times per year with the Chief Academic Officer and Turnaround Division Director,” said department spokesman Eric Scoville. “A CSDE Education Consultant assigned to Waterbury conducts weekly meetings and monthly site visits to the district and schools.”

“We are acknowledging there is more work to be done here,” Scoville said. “But we are pleased with the progress that Waterbury has made and continues to make.”

In response to the corrective plan, Spagnolo said he helped create a trauma team that includes representatives from police, the schools, the state Department of Children and Families and mental health providers to support children before they have a crisis at school.

“No one had gotten to the root of the problem and figured why these incidents are occurring at the schools on such a large level because staff had expended all the resources they had,” Spagnolo said. “I believe a lot of the incidents are secondary to the trauma these kids are seeing outside of school.”

His officers who have been trained in de-escalation work with licensed mental health care providers who come to a scene and wait until police have determined it is safe for them to begin finding care for an adult in crisis, he said.

“We’ve seen some great results from that and we’re hoping we can transfer that to our work with youth,” Spagnolo said.

Although her investigation was officially closed in June, Eagan said she is aware of at least three arrests of 12-year-old children in Waterbury schools since the start of the 2021-2022 school year about five weeks ago.

The incident on Sept. 20 between a 13-year-old and a 14-year-old student was likely a preplanned fight stemming from issues outside the school, Waterbury Lt. Robert Davis said.

The video was reviewed and it appears that the officer is kneeling next to the boy as he and another officer are working to put the teen in handcuffs. “The officer definitely did not have his knee on the student’s back,” Davis said. “That would have been investigated, we are talking about a child here.”

The SRO only stepped in and later called for backup after it was apparent that the safety of the students, staff and the gathering crowd was in doubt, Davis said. “The SRO did try to leave the discipline in the hands of the school,” Davis said.

Spagnolo said he was satisfied with the way his officers handled the situation. “We are going to try each and every day to support our students,” Spagnolo said. “We always seek alternatives to arrest, however there will be times when a few people are endangering staff or the public and we’re going to have to intervene. At the end of the day our officers acted appropriately.”