Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

School districts right to divert kids from life of crime

While the state of Florida cynically shovels more money into building prisons, school districts, most notably Miami-Dade and Broward, are working to ensure that fewer students end up there.

It’s called the school-to-prison pipeline, created by overreaching, life-damaging zero tolerance policies for misbehavior of any kind. But school districts across the country are stepping back from this approach and from the zero-tolerance policies for misbehavior of any kind. Throw a spitball? Call the cops. Throw a punch? Call the cops. Curse at a teacher? Unacceptable behavior, for sure. But is it so egregious as to earn a student a police escort off the campus in handcuffs? Hardly.

In an age that has seen students sow real chaos in schools — bringing in guns and drugs, physically assaulting teachers — funneling every last undisciplined student to jail is antithetical to a school system’s mission, however hard it is to carry out.

Miami-Dade and Broward County school districts have realized the damage being done to young lives and are among many across the country that have reversed course. Instead of a ride to jail, troubled students get counseling; instead of handcuffs, mentoring. This is absolutely the right way to handle such incidents. As a result, each district has managed to significantly cut the number of arrests in their schools.

Both counties report that arrests are down 30 percent to 40 percent this school year. Suspensions, too, have been reduced, which is a boon for both students and the neighborhoods in which they live. After all, troublemakers on suspension tend to get themselves into more trouble. Schools with the most suspensions were located in areas with the worst juvenile crime.

Good for the leaders of these two districts. They know that schools, however troubled, exist to put young people on the path to becoming educated, self-sufficient members of a community, not to put them on a one-way track to incarceration, with police records for such trivial infractions. Applaud, too, the NAACP for working with Broward schools to help bring about the change, and a clergy-based group called PACT, which has pushed for better options to suspension.

Schools finally are rewriting a disturbing story that never should have been started in the first place. However, Florida legislators, with their tough-on-crime swagger, imposed a statewide zero-tolerance policy for even small fights and minor thefts in schools. The consequences were needlessly dire. One bad decision, typical of teenagers — many of them, no doubt, raised by inept parents — led not only to a police record, but to a harder time down the road when they sought to get a job or a school loan or join the military. Black and Hispanic students bore the brunt of the ridiculous arrests.

In 2009, the Legislature pulled back from its hard-line stance and urged school districts to find alternatives to arrests. In Miami-Dade and Broward, the results are clear.

Now that lawmakers are coming to their senses, it’s past time for them to reconsider their approach to imprisoning and prosecuting juveniles as adults. According to the Campaign for Youth Justice, based in Washington, Florida transfers more teens to adult court than any other state — this, even though, says Wansley Walters, head of the Department of Juvenile Justice, the number of juveniles so charged has dropped 62 percent in two and a half years.

Clearly, the state must do a better job diverting kids from crime and not turn them into criminals.

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