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Florida looks to ease arrests of students

Joint effort alters zero-tolerance

MIAMI — One of the nation’s largest school districts, law enforcement, and the NAACP have reached a deal aimed at arresting fewer students for minor offenses and cutting down the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, which the civil rights group and others say disproportionately affects minority students.

The agreement with Broward County Public Schools in Florida disclosed Tuesday is one of the first comprehensive plans bringing together district officials, police, and the state attorney’s office to create an alternative to the zero-tolerance policies prevalent in many schools. It charges principals rather than school resource officers with being the primary decision makers in responding to student misbehavior.

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The move is designed to cut down on what has become known as the ‘‘school-to-prison pipeline,’’ where students accused of offenses like disrupting class or loitering are suspended, arrested, and charged with crimes.

Broward, the nation’s sixth-largest district, had the highest number of school-related arrests in Florida in the 2011-2012 school year, according to state data. Seventy-one percent of the 1,062 arrests made were for misdemeanor offenses.

In this South Florida district and others across the country, minority students have been disproportionately arrested, sometimes for offenses that resulted in only a warning for their white peers.

Nationwide, more than 70 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or law enforcement referrals are black or Hispanic, according to US Department of Education data.

‘‘It’s pretty rare,’’ Michael Krezmien, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said of the agreement. ‘‘I think if every other school district did it that would be a great step forward.’’

The new policy creates a matrix for district officials and school resource officers to follow when a student misbehaves. For nonviolent misdemeanors like trespassing, harassment, incidents related to alcohol, possession of a misdemeanor amount of marijuana, and drug paraphernalia, administrators are instructed to try and resolve the situation without an arrest. A variety of alternatives, like participation in a week-long counseling program, are designed to address and correct the student’s behavior.

No student would be arrested for a first nonviolent misdemeanor, but further offenses will result in graduated levels of school-based interventions. After a fifth incident, students are referred to law enforcement.

Felonies or serious threats will still be handled by police.

The policy went into effect at the beginning of the current school year, and Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie said the district has already seen a 41 percent drop in school-related arrests.

Runcie became superintendent two years ago, and said one of the first things he did was look at student achievement and outcomes.

One of the data sets that stood out to him the most showed black male students in particular falling behind academically. When he dove further into the data, he found the same group was misrepresented in terms of expulsions and arrests.

Runcie worked with the NAACP to create a new student code of conduct. The NAACP said they had attempted to address student discipline with two previous superintendents, without any success.

The NAACP said they hope the policy will serve as a model for other districts nationwide.

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