A school district in Florida, law enforcement, and the NAACP have reached a deal intended to reduce student arrests for minor offenses. The agreement aims to cut down on the “school-to-prison” pipeline, which civil rights groups and others say often disproportionately affects minority students.
While strict zero-tolerance discipline policies remain prevalent in many schools, Broward County Public Schools’ new comprehensive plan offers an alternative approach. Drafted collaboratively between district officials, police, and the state attorney’s office, it charges principals rather than onsite law enforcement with being the primary decision-makers when responding to student misbehavior.
The move is designed to cut down on student-related arrests for minor offenses like disrupting class or loitering. Broward, the nation’s sixth-largest district, had the highest number of these arrests in Florida in the 2011-2012 school year, according to state data. Of the 1,062 arrests made, 71 percent were for misdemeanor offenses.
Groups like the NAACP are concerned because nationwide, more than 70 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or law enforcement referrals are black or Hispanic, according to U.S. Department of Education data.
“It’s pretty rare,” Michael Krezmien, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s College of Education, said of the Broward agreement. “I think if every other school district did it that would be a great step forward.”
The new policy creates a matrix for district officials and school resource officers to follow when a student misbehaves. For non-violent misdemeanors like trespassing, harassment, incidents related to alcohol, and possession of a misdemeanor amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, administrators are instructed to try and resolve the situation without an arrest. A variety of alternatives like participation in counseling programs are designed to address and correct the student’s behavior. No student is arrested for a first non-violent misdemeanor, but further offenses result in graduated levels of school-based interventions. After a fifth incident, students are referred to law enforcement.
Felonies or serious threats are still handled by police.
The policy went into effect at the beginning of the current school year, and Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie said the district has already seen a 41 percent decline in the number of school-related arrests.
When Runcie became superintendent two years ago, one of the first things he did was look at student achievement and outcomes. One of the data sets that stood out to him the most showed black male students in particular falling behind academically. When he dove further into the data, he found the same group was misrepresented in terms of expulsions and arrests.
Runcie worked with law enforcement and the NAACP to create the new student code of conduct. “Everybody deserves a second chance and this program will do just that,” said Marsha Ellison, president of the Fort Lauderdale/Broward County NAACP.