Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Arresting development


OUR OPINION: Turn off the school-to-prison pipeline, Florida lawmakers

For a state in which business leaders and elected officials are concerned about creating a skilled and job-ready workforce, it sure has a troubling knack for squandering its human capital. Case in point: its so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” rooted in zero-tolerance laws that criminalize almost every instance of student misbehavior, no matter how puny.

This is where St. Petersburg police officers handcuffed a big, bad 5-year-old who was having a temper tantrum, lethally armed with a jelly bean.

It’s all the result of overreaching lawmakers who brought their tough-on-street-crime swagger into the classrooms and hallways of our schools. It was one of the worst solutions to the real and frightening violence visited upon schools where shootings had occurred in Florida and other parts of the country.

Lawmakers cast too broad a net, and too many students — hormonal and rude, but not murderous — were entangled.

The Legislature pulled back some of the overreach in 2009, and bills currently in the House and the Senate mandate that schools restore some sanity to how they deal with students’ disciplinary problems. They have been assigned to committees, but won’t go anywhere unless hearings are scheduled. It should go without saying that hearings, indeed, should be scheduled. Lawmakers should be more concerned with creating educated and employable Floridians, instead of young felons. Such needless arrests shouldn’t become a lifelong stain on young persons’ potential to straighten out. But they do.

Florida’s first zero-tolerance policy came about in 1997. By 2002, it had been revised three times — and made more harsh each time.

In too many instances, students who misbehave have been arrested and plunged into the juvenile justice system, when they should have been sent to the principal’s office, had a sit-down with the parents and administration or received some sort of in-school discipline. Fistfights or cursing at the teacher is bad behavior and should be confronted with disciplinary action. But they don’t rise to the level of criminal behavior that calls for police intervention.

In 2004-2005, more than 28,000 students were arrested and referred to the Department of Juvenile Justice. Almost 65 percent were for misdemeanor offenses. This is according to a joint report by the ACLU of Florida, the Advancement Project and the Florida State Conference of the NAACP.

One set of companion bills — Senate Bill 1244 and House Bill 1009 — would “require schools to use alternatives to expulsion or referral to law enforcement agencies; requiring each district school board to adopt rules requiring that a student found to have committed certain offenses be placed in an alternative school setting or other program, rather than expelled.”

Two others — SB 778 and HB 795 — revise the qualifications of school-resource officer and school-safety officers; authorize such officers to make an arrest only after certain circumstances occur; and require law-enforcement agencies to enter into cooperative agreements with district school boards.

In South Florida, Miami-Dade and Broward counties have already realized that the school-to-prison pipeline benefits few but Florida’s privatized prisons. Both districts, commendably, made the police the last resort, rather than the first call made.

If lawmakers fail to put the current bills in the legislative pipeline this session, then they will have failed the state’s own future.

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