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Rethinking Discipline and Supporting Students’ Behavioral Health using Connecticut’s School-Based Diversion Initiative: An Interview with Erika Treannie of Bristol Public Schools

CHDI recently interviewed Erika Treannie regarding her role in leading Bristol Public Schools’ participation in the School-Based Diversion Initiative (SBDI). SBDI is a school-level initiative coordinated statewide by CHDI that has served 56 schools across 20 districts over the past decade. The goals of SBDI are to reduce exclusionary discipline (e.g., suspensions, expulsions, arrests) and to connect students with behavioral health needs to appropriate school and community-based services and supports. These goals align with the current long-term plan in Bristol Public Schools to better address and support students’ behavioral health needs. As part of this plan, two public schools in Bristol participated in SBDI beginning in 2019 (Bristol Eastern High and Bristol Preparatory), two more were added in 2020 (Northeast Middle and West Bristol School). Bristol has also added two additional schools for SY 2020-21 (Bristol Central High School and Chippens Hill Middle School). 

SBDI promotes positive outcomes for both schools and students. By transforming school discipline and helping at-risk students, schools that have participated in SBDI since 2009 have decreased court referrals by 33% and increased connections to behavioral health supports, such as Connecticut’s Mobile Crisis Intervention Services by 42%. Mobile crisis services provide free behavioral health support for children and youth in Connecticut and can be accessed by schools and families by calling 2-1-1. 


In the following conversation, Erika shares how Bristol Public Schools is using SBDI to change the way the district approaches discipline and behavioral health using strategies thatare less punitive and more restorative. 

Q: Why did your district decide to participate in the SBDI initiative? 

A: After reviewing the SBDI initiative we felt our Bristol Public Schools' goals aligned seamlessly with providing support and services to students determined to be at-risk of discipline intervention. It offered a way to rethink our approach to discipline and reduce arrest rates, while connecting students to behavioral health services. 

Q: How is SBDI working at your school? 

A: The two schools who participated in SBDI last year (2018-2019) had a decrease in school-based arrests and exclusionary discipline and an increase in 211 mobile crisis referrals to help address students' behavioral health needs and assist families in finding services and support. Clearly this illustrates a shift from reactive structures to proactive engagement of the student and family. This school year (2019-2020) the two new schools who are participating in the SBDI grant have shown similar trends. 

Q: How did SBDI help increase the schools’ capacity to address mental health needs by connecting students to 211 (Mobile Crisis Intervention Services)? 

 A: The mobile crisis team came to our school faculty meeting and gave a presentation* on the services they offered for families. After this presentation, our staff felt more comfortable calling mobile crisis for support and to make referrals. Before the presentation, our staff thought calls could only be made during crisis situations. But we learned that staff could also call 211 and schedule appointments for after school and a mobile crisis staff could go to the home and help assist families with finding community-based resources for mental health needs. This allowed our staff to make more referrals and helped our students in need of services get support for their behavioral health needs. 

 *Note: during COVID-19 all trainings/presentations may be conducted virtually, while services still operate on-site and by phone.  

Q: How has SBDI helped parents, students, and staff? 

A: I think SBDI has helped the staff reflect on their beliefs and unconscious bias, which has resulted in more effective practices being implemented ​with ​our students and families. 

Q: What challenges did you face implementing SBDI and how did you overcome them? 

A: Initially, staff was resistant to “Restorative Practices” as they had heard anecdotally that there would be no consequences and “bedlam” in our schools. What they learned however, was the importance and power of developing an appropriate and balanced relationship with their students and the subsequent improvement in their classroom and school climate. 

Q: How has the use of restorative practices shifted your district’s culture? 

A: We have begun using restorative circles in our district, this is a practice that can be used to develop relationships and build community among our students and staff. Our district has implemented daily circles in all of our elementary and K-8 schools and weekly circles in our middle and high schools. We have utilized restorative conferencing to resolve peer conflicts as well as staff/student conflict. We trained our Youth Service Department in Formal Restorative Conferencing so they can be a neutral party conducting the conferences for students returning from out-of-school suspension (OSS), expulsion, or after a major conflict between a student and staff personnel. While our schools are in various stages of implementation and “restorative enlightenment” we have a collective commitment to the methodology.

Q: What interventions have your district/schools implemented to address exclusionary discipline? 

A: We have revised our exclusionary practices in all of our schools and added restorative conferencing to our list of strategies for determining discipline. We trained administrative staff and the staff that preside over expulsions in the theory and methodology of Restorative Practice. 

Q: How has SBDI’s collaboration with the Youth Service Bureaus supported your work? 

A: This (2019-2020) is our second year with SBDI. Last year (2018-2019) we asked our Youth Service Bureau to provide counseling services to our two identified schools. One of the identified schools felt they needed individual counseling for some of their students and the other school asked for weekly group counseling for students who were identified by having repeat in-school suspensions (ISS). The hope of the group was to give the students the tools to avoid future exclusionary discipline. This year I was able to train the Youth Service staff in Restorative Conferencing so they could be a neutral party to facilitate Formal Conferencing between school staff and students where harm has occurred and also for students who are returning after an expulsion or coming back from an out placed situation. 

Q: How do you plan to sustain the goals of SBDI when the program ends? 

A: Through SBDI I had the opportunity to become a Trainer of Trainers in Restorative Practices, Circles and Conferencing, this gives me the ability to continue to train staff in my district as well as community providers. It is critical that we, as a school district, ensure our staff and community members share a common language and, to the maximum extent possible, beliefs about teaching and correction and opportunities for repairing the aggrieved. ​ 

Q: What is your role as the Leader in Residence for SBDI? 

A: My role as the Leader in Residence is to help participating schools integrate SBDI strategies into their workforce development, school discipline policies, and student mental health support services. For instance, I schedule all of the staff professional development and conduct workgroup sessions to implement Restorative Practices in the school. I analyze school discipline data; collect data on out-of-school suspensions (OSS), school-based arrests, and 211 (Mobile Crisis) calls. I also collaborate to create ways we can improve together as a school through focused professional learning activities. In addition, I attend quarterly meetings with the Child Health and Development Institute (CHDI) staff, and work with our Youth Services Department on creating engaging and relevant programming to assist us in reaching our shared goals. 

Q: As a Leader in Residence for SBDI, what advice would you give to districts/schools who are considering participating in this program? 

A: My advice to future LIRs is to learn as much as you can about Restorative Practices and how trauma affects our staff and students, I would have open dialogue with staff and students and include them in the roll out. I would name the concerns that dissenters often raise and challenge them to commit. I would encourage them to take advantage of the wonderful agencies and training that are provided to them through the SBDI grant. 

The Child Health and Development Institute (CHDI) serves as the coordinating center for SBDI. This initiative is funded by the State Department of Education, Court Support Services Division of the Judicial Branch, and the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. 

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