The clients and cases that flowed out of Broward’s classrooms and into the public defender’s juvenile division used to make Gordon Weekes Jr. shake his head.
Weekes and his colleagues found themselves defending teenagers arrested for trespassing because they had been suspended and returned to campus after school, and kids jailed for “disruption of a school function” because they cursed a teacher.
“When a child would take a spitball and spit it across the classroom, they’d criminalize that and call it battery,” said Weekes, Broward’s chief assistant public defender.
Until recently, under hard-line policies that left little room for judgment calls, thousands of students were sent directly from South Florida schools to jail each year. Most were arrested for nonviolent misdemeanor offenses, and often they were black or Hispanic students.
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But recently, Miami-Dade and Broward counties have done an about-face, cutting the number of arrests in half, reducing the number of suspensions by a nearly equal rate, and replacing tough love with counseling and mentorship.
The reversal — highlighted last Tuesday by a landmark agreement between Broward schools and the NAACP to further curb arrests and suspensions — is part of a national push to end the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a phrase coined by those who believe schools have become as good at funneling teenagers into the penal system as they are at directing graduates into college.
“In this country, we’ve got 2 million people in prison,” Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said Tuesday. “And it starts in our public school system.”
The move away from hard-line tactics began in 2009, after the Florida Legislature softened a state “zero tolerance” law that required police action for even minor misdemeanors. After the change, the law encouraged school districts to find alternatives to calling police for issues like small fights and minor thefts.
“People are just becoming more aware of the consequences of children coming into the juvenile justice system, and that it’s difficult for them to get jobs and to get into the military or get school loans,” said Florida Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters, who took over in 2011 after a stint heading Miami-Dade’s Juvenile Services Department. “We hear stories all the time of children who have minor school arrests and can’t get into the military and can’t get jobs.”
Results were not immediate in South Florida. In fact, schools in both Broward and Miami-Dade reported more arrests the next year, when 3,200 students went to jail. But last year, figures from the Department of Juvenile Justice show the number of South Florida school-related arrests dropped by more than half, to 1,500.
The department defines school-related arrests as those that take place on school grounds, at school functions, on school buses or at school bus stops.
So far, both counties say arrests are down by 30 to 40 percent since the start of the current school year.
Some experts and teachers have argued that the anti-disciplinary movement has gone too far to the other extreme, allowing disruptive students to remain in classrooms and causing productive students to suffer. But Miami-Dade has attributed higher graduation rates in part to the plummet in arrests.
And both districts also are working to curb suspensions, which officials like Walters say contribute to arrest rates.
Broward’s specific suspension numbers were not available. But in five years, Miami-Dade’s suspensions dropped from 86,000 to 61,000 last year.
That includes a 12,000 drop in out-of-school suspensions last year after the district changed its suspension policies following the death of Miami Gardens teen Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed in Sanford while serving a suspension from Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School in Northeast Miami-Dade. It was the third time he had been suspended for issues such as defacing lockers and getting caught with a marijuana baggie and women’s jewelry.
“We know from studies that kids who are suspended, it doesn’t make the school safer or produce a better child,” said Miami-Dade Schools Police Chief Ian Moffett. “Our goal isn’t to suspend kids or arrest kids. It’s to make sure kids are in school and that they become a productive member of society.”
South Florida activists attribute the drop in arrests to a change in law — and a change in the attitude of school district officials, who have forged partnerships with community groups. But they say there are still challenges.
For instance, Advancement Project, a civil rights organization, studied Miami-Dade’s suspension data from last year and found that 50 schools, serving just 12 percent of the district’s students, accounted for half of all out-of-school suspensions. Many of these schools were in what the district refers to as the “urban core,” communities in North Central Miami-Dade, the inner city and in South Miami-Dade, where poverty rates are high.
Lamar Thornton, a Miami Central High School senior, said he was suspended for 10 days earlier this year for talking in class. He said he received zeros for the assignments he missed, and flunked several classes.
“You just take the zeros,” he said. “Now I got to take Florida Virtual School to get my grades up to par and graduate with a 2.0” grade-point average.
Thornton, 18, is a member of the Power U Center for Social Change, a nonprofit organization that has lobbied the Miami-Dade School Board to further soften disciplinary measures.
The district has been receptive. Last week, Valtena Brown, Miami-Dade’s chief operating officer, met at Temple Israel of Greater Miami with a clergy-based activist group called PACT, which began pushing for reduced suspensions after learning that the schools with the highest numbers were also located in ZIP codes with the worst juvenile crime.
“We’ve still got a long way to go,” said Brown, noting that the district is trying to bring its suspension rate down to 10 percent within the next several years
Brown said all schools are required to have alternatives to out-of-school suspensions, and she has asked churches to partner with nearby schools to help improve what she said is a “community issue.”
But reducing the number of suspensions isn’t simple, she added. For principals, the decision to suspend or not to suspend often comes amid heated discussions with upset parents, and ends up being a “judgment call” by the administrator.
And while zero-tolerance policies have clearly harmed some students, some education experts worry that the national push to reduce suspensions could end up tying the hands of teachers and administrators.
Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank, worries that “the country is going from one extreme to the other.”
“What we need to be careful about is letting the pendulum swing too far to the other extreme and getting to the point where we’re keeping disruptive students in the classroom,” he said. “We’ve got to be at least as concerned about those students who want to learn as those students who are disruptive.”
On Tuesday, Broward Circuit Judge Elijah Williams said the new emphasis on reducing arrests is an idea that is “spreading like wildfire” nationally. Cities as varied as Wichita, Kan., and Columbus, Ohio, are now on board, Williams said, adding that the issue is even getting attention in the “red-meat conservative state” of Texas.
“Everybody,” he said, “wants what we’re doing today.”