Broward County, the nation’s seventh largest school district, used to send the highest number of students into Florida’s juvenile justice system, mainly for minor school code infractions. On Tuesday, the district announced a new plan to revamp school disciplinary procedures and cut down on arrests.
Florida arrests more students than any other state, and Broward has played no small part in maintaining this record. Students in Broward schools have been regularly carted away in handcuffs for offenses like starting a food fight, violating the dress code, or talking in class. Misbehaving kids were charged with battery for throwing spitballs and disorderly conduct for yelling in class. Black and disabled children were most likely to be arrested.
Now, working with law enforcement and the NAACP, the district has replaced its zero tolerance policy with a tiered plan to deal with misbehavior. Non-violent offenses like trespassing, harassment, petty theft, and possession of marijuana or alcohol will be directed to guidance counselors and mentors. Students will still be punished, perhaps by making restitution to people who were hurt by their actions, but suspensions, expulsions, and arrests will be treated as a last-resort option.
The school-to-prison pipeline at Broward is replicated in thousands of schools across the country. Predominantly black and minority students are sent to jail for misbehaving in school, trapping them in a cycle of poverty and prison. Students who encounter the juvenile criminal justice system become much more likely to drop out of school, and be incarcerated as an adult, compared with kids with similar behavioral problems who stay outside the system. Those who manage to graduate must disclose previous arrests on applications to college, scholarships, jobs, and housing aid. What’s more, these policies eat up taxpayer dollars and clog up the courts with low-risk cases.
Clayton County in Georgia underwent a similar transformation to what Broward is attempting, which has resulted in a 20 percent increase in graduation rates and an 87 percent reduction in student fights. Broward has already seen a 41 percent decline in school arrests since the new approach went into effect at the beginning of the school year.