Broward schools working to revamp discipline, reduce arrests

Broward’s school district is tops in the state in the number of students arrested on school campuses — a dubious distinction that the district is hoping to erase through new disciplinary guidelines.

Those guidelines, which are still a work in progress, would in some cases replace expulsions and arrests with two intertwined behavior intervention programs, one of which involves a last-chance sit-down with a local juvenile court judge.

“This is a dramatic shift,” said Nordia Sappleton, a dropout-prevention specialist in the Broward school district who is part of a larger team crafting the new rules. “We’re not giving up on any of our students.”

The proposal comes after years of criticism that Broward principals have leaned too heavily on school-assigned police officers to mete out discipline — at times resulting in unnecessary arrests. When in-school arrests are made, minority students are being disproportionally placed in handcuffs.

Broward had 1,062 school-related arrests during the 2011-12 school year, according to a report by Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice. Miami-Dade County schools, which have significantly more students, had 552 arrests. Miami-Dade has in recent years employed a variety of strategies to reduce student arrests: psychologists and social workers are involved in the discipline process, school police officers were retrained to be more cautious in making arrests, and a Civil Citation Program gives students a chance to nullify a misdemeanor arrest if they complete a diversion program.

In Broward, Sappleton’s planning team includes several committees made up of district staff, community members, law enforcement personnel, and representatives from the Broward legal community. By as early as the start of the next school year, the group hopes to have a new system in place that would deploy counselors and mentors to trouble-making students instead of pushing them out of school through suspensions or expulsions. The students would still be punished — they would likely have to temporarily switch to an alternative school, for example, and they might have to perform restitution if their actions negatively impacted teachers or their classmates.

“You’re not getting off scot-free,” Sappleton said.

Though the details haven’t been finalized, examples of student misbehavior that might fall under the new guidelines include petty theft, substance abuse, or in-school gambling.

Ultimately, Broward School Board members will have to sign off on the changes, and Broward Circuit Judge Elijah Williams appeared before board members on Tuesday to rally for their support.

“Somehow we got ourselves on this track where we’ve been arresting these schoolchildren,” Williams said. “I don’t think that was our intent.”

Williams said a single arrest, even as a juvenile, can haunt a person for life — keeping them out of college or the military, and in some cases disqualifying them from jobs or housing. In the case of nonviolent misdemeanor offenses, Williams urged board members to follow the lead of school districts around the country that are increasingly working to keep students out of the criminal justice system.

In Clayton County, Ga., Williams said that new approach led to an 87 percent reduction in student fights, and a 20 percent increase in graduation rates.

Broward’s School Board members were generally receptive to adopting a new discipline plan, though the specific penalties for certain misdeeds will have to be hashed out through future debate.

“It’s a culture shift,” said School Board member Robin Bartleman, who has pushed the issue for several years. “This is all about common sense discipline.”

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