Florida has long been notorious for its particularly zealous system of criminalizing student discipline known as the school-to-prison pipeline. In 2005, the state made more than 28,000 student arrests, thanks to a “zero tolerance” policy. Seven years later, even as the state has halved that figure to 14,000 arrests in 2012, police intervention in student discipline remains alarmingly common in particular regions, with arrests occurring most frequently for behavior that includes “trespassing” on school property when a student was purportedly suspended, petty school-yard fights, and classroom violations like refusing to take a cell phone out of a pocket. What’s more, Florida still arrests more students than any other state. An extensive new report from the Orlando Sentinel explains:
“The vast majority of children being arrested in schools are not committing criminal acts,” [Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley] Walters told the Orlando Sentinel.
Sixty-seven percent of the arrests last year were for misdemeanors such as disorderly conduct — a catchall, attorneys say, that has been used when children refused to take a cellphone out of a pocket or yelled in class. Fewer than 5 percent faced weapons charges.
Most arrests, Walters says, stem from “bad behavior, not criminal behavior.” […]
An Orange high-school senior, for example, was arrested last spring because, during a suspension for insubordination, she returned to campus to take her final exams, said Olga Telleria-Khoudmi, juvenile-division chief for the Orange/Osceola Public Defender’s Office.
These arrests are now concentrated in Central Florida, where nearly all public and middle schools and some elementary schools have police officers on site, and “schools are turning to police to handle misbehavior that guidance counselors and psychologists don’t have time to address,” according to the Sentinel. This raises serious concerns about the push to place more officers in schools in the wake of the Newtown, Ct. mass shooting, as putting more armed guards in schools has already been linked to an uptick in arrests. Miami-Dade County, by contrast, has had substantial success in curbing these arrests by turning instead to an extensive network of social services and using civil citations in place of criminal charges.
As in all regions where these arrests are common, they disproportionately affect minority students, particularly black and disabled students, branding youth with criminal records and diverting kids out of school and into to the criminal justice system. In Florida, 47 percent of arrests are of black students, even though they make up only 23 percent of the state’s population; 29 percent of arrests were of disabled students, even though they make up just 13 percent of the state population.
This phenomenon is not isolated to Florida. Some of the most egregious incidents of criminalizing student behavior have occurred in Mississippi, where students at one school were regularly handcuffed to a rail in a school gymnasium for not wearing a belt, and a peanut-throwing fight on a school bus resulted in the arrest of five students for felony assault, which carries a minimum five years in prison. But the problem is nationwide, and does not bode well for the future U.S. incarceration rate, which currently eclipses that of any other country in the world.