Florida’s Broward Softening Approach to Lawbreaking Students

Many cities and school districts around the country are reconsidering their approach to minor offenses and planning to make changes to ‘get-tough,' zero tolerance policies. Mounting evidence shows such policies in schools are leading to arrest records, low academic achievement and high dropout rates that especially affect minority students.

In Florida, Broward County's public schools have decided to back away from the heavy-handed approach. The schools now want to keep law-breaking students in school, away from trouble on the streets, and to offer them counseling and other assistance aimed at changing behavior, writes Lizette Alvarez of The New York Times.

Last month, the Broward County Public Schools decided to a revise zero tolerance policy, which first grew out of the war on drugs in the 1990s and became more aggressive in the wake of school shootings like the one at Columbine High School in Colorado. The school district joined other large school districts including Los Angeles, Baltimore, Chicago and Denver.

Over the past two decades, schools around the country have seen suspensions, expulsions and arrests for minor nonviolent offenses climb together with the number of police officers stationed at schools. The school district joined other large school districts, including Los Angeles, Baltimore, Chicago and Denver.

Two years ago, the school district achieved a Florida record it likely isn't proud of: more students were arrested on school campuses there than in any other state district, the vast majority for misdemeanors like possessing marijuana or spraying graffiti.

Broward had more than 1,000 arrests in the 2011 school year. In November, the school district entered into a wide-ranging agreement with local law enforcement, the juvenile justice department and civil rights groups like the NAACP to overhaul its disciplinary policies and de-emphasize punishment.

"A knee-jerk reaction for minor offenses, suspending and expelling students, this is not the business we should be in," said Robert W. Runcie, the Broward County Schools superintendent, who took the job in late 2011. "We are not accepting that we need to have hundreds of students getting arrested and getting records that impact their lifelong chances to get a job, go into the military, get financial aid."

Nationwide, more than 70% of students involved in arrests or referrals to court are black or Hispanic, according to federal data.

"What you see is the beginning of a national trend here," said Michael Thompson, the director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center. "Everybody recognizes right now that if we want to really find ways to close the achievement gap, we are really going to need to look at the huge number of kids being removed from school campuses who are not receiving any classroom time."

The Obama administration also pressured schools to make some changes. Beginning in 2009, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education aggressively began to encourage schools to think twice before arresting and pushing children out of school. In some cases, as in Meridian, Miss., the federal government has sued to force change in schools.

However, supporters emphasize the flexibility in these new policies and stress that they do not apply to students who commit felonies or pose a danger.

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