FORT LAUDERDALE – Picture a typical Broward County classroom on a sunny afternoon. In the middle of a math class, the teacher is asked to step out of her room for a few minutes. As she heads to the hallway she tells her students to work quietly and remain in their seats. “I’ll be right back,” she tells them.
After a few minutes, the students become restless. Their restlessness morphs into increasingly loud voices and a spit ball fight ensues and this normal childhood prank played out in schools around the country results in an arrest.
This was the case in Broward County until a groundbreaking agreement was reached to end the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. In a remarkable show of cooperation involving several county agencies and community organizations, the Broward County Collaborative Agreement of School Discipline was signed on Tuesday.
The pact was signed by Laurie Rich Levinson, chairwoman, School Board of Broward County; Robert W. Runcie, superintendent, Broward County Public Schools; Peter M. Winstein, chief judge, 17th Judicial Circuit; Russell H. Hanstein, assistant chief, Fort Lauderdale Police Department; Michael J. Satz, Broward state attorney; Joan Wimmer, assistant secretary for Probation and Community Intervention, Florida Department of Juvenile Justice; Howard Finkelstein, public defender; Marsha Ellison, chairwoman, Fort Lauderdale/Broward Branch of the NAACP and chairwoman of the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board; Scott Israel, Broward sheriff; and Adora Obi Nweze, president, Florida State Conference of the NAACP and of the Miami-Dade branch.
The new policy outlined in the agreement creates a procedure for district officials and school resource officers to follow when a student misbehaves. For non-violent misdemeanors such as trespassing, harassment, incidents related to alcohol, possession of a misdemeanor amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, administrators will now try to resolve the situation without an arrest. Alternatives such as participation in a week-long counseling program will be used to deal with such behavior.
The agreement places the responsibility on principals to determine the appropriate disciplinary action for student misbehavior, rather than delegating it to school resource officers. The procedure makes police involvement a last resort.
“Silly behavior is not criminal behavior and we have led an effort to make sure the administrators have taken control of the schools, rather than law enforcement,” said the NAACP’s Ellison, who was among the leaders of the initiative.
Ellison forged a coalition among several agencies to work towards a change in the “zero tolerance” policy. They include the School Board of Broward County, the NAACP, the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit, the State Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender, the Broward Sheriff’s Office, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board.
The goal of that policy, Introduced into classrooms in late 1990s, was to make schools safer and allow educators to focus on teaching, rather than on disciplinary issues. The policy quickly became the modus operandi of many school districts across the country.
School districts began to bypass other forms of discipline, such as counseling and detention, and opted for more extreme punishment alternatives, such as suspension, expulsion, and law enforcement involvement. The results were students were removed from schools or arrested for minor infractions such as tardiness or throwing candy in class.
“We’ve done away with the phrase ‘zero-tolerance,’” said Israel, who earlier this year unilaterally directed his deputies to invoke a little used state law allowing for “Civil Citation” as a means of reducing the number of juvenile arrests.
Speaking at a press conference held at the NAACP’s Ft. Lauderdale office on Monday, Israel said, “Kids will now get second, third and fourth chances. Students will not become collateral damage of the way things used to be.”
The agreement signed Tuesday will have a significant impact on black and other minority students who have been disproportionately affected by the “zero-tolerance” policy, resulting in mass incarceration and creating a vicious cycle for students and their families that has come to be known as the school-to-prison pipeline.
Broward County Schools, the nation’s sixth largest school district, is now a leader in the discipline reform movement. About 100,000 of Broward County’s 260,000 students are black but they have been suspended at more than twice the rate of white students. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, Broward Schools imposed in-school suspensions on 11,810 black students in 2009, or about 12 percent of the black student population. There were also 5,135 out-of-school suspensions for black students. In 2010 and 2011, there were more than 1,000 school-related arrests and nearly three-quarters of them were for non-violent misdemeanors.
“Broward County has set an example that we can use as a template that we can take across the country,” said Kim Keenan, NAACP general counsel. “Without an agreement like this today, what we have is a world that, instead of focusing on educating our students, we are focused on shipping them off to juvenile detention centers and that’s not what we send kids to school for. We are not training them to be criminals; we are training them to be productive citizens in the great state of Florida.”
As part of the agreement, Broward Schools will continue to establish and implement guidelines for the handling of school-based student misbehavior. The district reported that it has already seen positive results, including a decrease in suspensions by 66.2 percent, compared to the same time period in 2012. Expulsion is down by 51.4 percent and school-related arrests by 40.7 percent.
“We are going to take this model and run with it,” said Adora Obi Nweze, president of the NAACP Florida State Conference and also the
Miami-Dade branch. “The NAACP can take this model in all of our branches and make it their own. We now have the foundation to save a generation of youth of color from the criminal justice system. This would not be possible without the leadership of our Fort Lauderdale/ Broward Branch.”