Broward County Schools

In Broward, student arrests down under new strategy

Only a couple of years ago, Broward’s school district led the state in the number of school-based arrests. The district’s 1,062 arrests in the 2011-2012 school year were nearly double the number in Miami-Dade, even though Broward has considerably fewer students.

These days, however, Broward is not only reducing student arrests, but has also created a groundbreaking community partnership dedicated to keeping kids out of the criminal justice system altogether.

On Tuesday — by unanimous vote — Broward School Board members signed off on a far-reaching collaborative agreement that seeks to remake how student discipline is handled. Students will no longer be arrested for non-violent misdemeanor offenses that occur on school grounds — instead, they will receive counseling and mentoring services under a new program known as PROMISE. The acronym stands for Preventing Recidivism through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Support and Education.

The goal is to give misbehaving students a second chance — and spare them the lifelong stigma that comes with a criminal record. Broward in the past has been criticized for arresting students for minor infractions that aren’t even criminal in nature, such as throwing spitballs.

The new rules should eliminate those controversial arrests. Instead of being pushed out of school through lengthy suspensions or expulsions, students who cause trouble will be transferred to alternative schools where class work will be combined with counseling and other intervention-type programs.

The community partners include the Broward State Attorney’s office, Broward Sheriff Scott Israel and the local and state chapters of the NAACP. Under Broward’s previous policies, black students were being disproportionately suspended, expelled and arrested.

“In this country we’ve got two million people in prison, more than any other western country,” Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said. “And it starts in our public school system.”

Broward’s revamped discipline rules started in August. So far, district officials say student arrests have dropped by about 40 percent, and suspensions are down by roughly 66 percent.

School Board member Robin Bartleman praised the district’s new philosophy as a “brave” step that will benefit students. Bartleman spent the past few years pushing for Broward to change its approach.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” Bartleman said. “Well, we’re going to get different results, and we’re going to save lives.”

Broward is not alone in rethinking how to best handle student discipline. Miami-Dade’s school district has increasingly incorporated psychologists and social workers into the disciplinary process, in hopes of making student arrests less common. Similar initiatives are sprouting up across the country.

The ceremonial signing of Broward’s community agreement triggered cheers and standing ovations Tuesday — and even tears of gratitude.

“I woke up very early, trying to make sure that I got here just to say thank you,” school district activist Ernestine Price told board members, choking up. “I just thank you for standing there for our children.”

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