Harsh discipline policies are falling out of favor across the country, but Broward County, Fla., is hoping to do away with them entirely.
Broward County, home to Fort Lauderdale and one of the nation's largest school systems, approved today a major overhaul of the district's discipline policies. In place of a routine that has seen large swaths of students incarcerated, the district is implementing a system based on restorative justice and forged with input from a broad coalition of local organizations and people.
"We've done away with the phrase 'zero tolerance,'" Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said at a press conference today. "Students will not become collateral damage of the way things used to be."
The new system offers guidance in two forms: A memorandum of understanding that details terms of discipline, and a flowchart ("decision matrix") that distills that memorandum into the bare essentials. In either iteration, the understanding makes clear when exactly school trouble warrants police action. The new structure does not eliminate police influence in schools, or deprive them of any jurisdiction; this shift isn't in power, but in mindset, establishing among all parties involved in the Broward County legal system—school board, administrators, judges, attorneys, police, and sheriff—that students deserve more tolerance than they've yet been given.
As the flowchart shows, district officials want to hold police action as strictly a last recourse. Only after five successive levels of intervention fail should an arrest be made, barring imminent danger or a felony. That's an abrupt shift in a county so rife in disciplinary action that many at today's press conference referenced students throwing M&M's as a reason for suspension. (Wasting chocolate is a crime, but still.)
The centerpiece of the agreement seems to be Step Three, the point at which an officer has been brought in to consult (but not take action) and must assess a situation. In many systems, this step can lead to suspensions both in and out of school because of zero-tolerance policies. Increasingly, however, school systems have started to question such policies, with Georgia, Los Angeles, and Detroit being some of the largest examples. In place of suspensions and arrests, Broward plans to lean heavily on its newly implemented PROMISE Program, which utilizes positive discipline techniques.
The discipline guidance itself might not be mindblowing, but the circumstances of its creation are a groundbreaking approach for a district beleaguered by high disciplinary rates, especially among minorities. Broward County has just over 260,000 students; of those, about 100,000 are black, and they've been suspended at over twice the rate of white students. According to the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Data Collection, Broward County served 11,810 black students with in-school suspensions in 2009, or about 12 percent of the black student population. There were also 5,135 out-of-school suspensions for black students.
"We, for the first time in this community, can say that the community, the judiciary, the law enforcement, the public defender, the state's attorney, and the school district have come to the same conclusion—that we are all obligated to come together to work on this situation," Leon W. Russell, vice chairman for the NAACP board of directors, said in today's press conference.
"This is something every district can make on their own and do on their own," Alana Greer, a staff attorney for the Washington-based Advancement Project, said in an interview. Greer, as a member of her organization's Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track team, has been one of a cadre of people to offer advice to Broward County on crafting its new policy.
Broward County NAACP President Marsha Ellison has been at the forefront of the effort, and has been working for years with groups like the Advancement Project to mitigate the school-to-prison pipeline. But they hadn't found a political ally among top district brass until the arrival of Superintendent Robert Runcie in 2011, who made it a clear priority, starting with changing the code of conduct.
The board unanimously ratified the policy at a meeting late this morning, with a ceremonial signing held shortly thereafter. Community members lauded the board and Runcie for their work, and its passage received a standing ovation.
"If we don't find ways to turn this around and give them an opportunity, we're wasting a lot of lives," Runcie said at the signing. "I don't believe children fail, I believe we fail to give them the opportunities to succeed."
Elijah H. Williams, a judge for the 17th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida and one of the foremost advocates for the changes, noted at the signing that this is not the first such discipline system in the United States, but that it can be used to strengthen the momentum against zero-tolerance policies.
"Everyone wants this," he said.
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