One of the worst examples of zero tolerance in recent years, Florida’s Broward County school district, racked up more than 1,000 arrests of students in the 2011 school year. That was the highest number of students arrested in any Florida school district. Most of the offenses were for misdemeanors such as marijuana possession or graffiti spraying.
Last month, Broward took a new tack, following other large districts like Chicago, Denver, Baltimore and Los Angeles in backing off zero tolerance policies, the New York Times reported. Instead of kicking students out of school, these districts try to keep the offenders in classes and offer them counseling and other kinds of help to change bad behavior.
The Broward district signed onto an agreement with several groups including law enforcement, juvenile justice officials and civil rights organizations to revise disciplinary policies with less emphasis on punishment. Now first-offender students committing any of 11 nonviolent misdemeanors are not arrested but instead must receive counseling and do community service. Instead of suspension for minor infractions, students attend a counseling program.
In Boston, a similar innovative program uses the concept of “restorative justice” to deal with students who violate rules. This approach includes discussion circles and courts led by students themselves, giving students in trouble a second chance and hopefully breaking the “school-to-prison” pipeline, according to an NBC News report.
“The idea behind restorative justice is about building relationships, trust and community so people are invested,” said Janet Connors of the Diploma Plus program’s Justice League, a student-led group formed to help resolve disputes at Charlestown High School. As the result of such programs in Boston Public Schools, arrests of students dropped to 142 in 2012 from 288 in 2009, the year before the programs were implemented.
Boston’s interim school superintendent, John McDonough, said: “We know this works, based not only on the drop in the number of arrests, which represents the most serious offenses, but in the changes we’ve seen in students who would have otherwise been suspended or expelled.”
It is significant that some of the common sense efforts “are increasingly supported, sometimes even led, by state juvenile justice directors, judges and police officers,” the Times said. Indeed. Who else knows better what is the best approach for dealing with the problems of students that get into trouble? Case in point: the two Cobb high school seniors who were arrested on felony charges last September because they forgot about knives in their cars parked at school. Fortunately, common sense prevailed when Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds agreed that a diversion program was better than prosecution. And Cobb legislators including Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) and Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) want to see Georgia’s law changed.
The stage is set for the Georgia General Assembly to replace zero tolerance with common sense in the 2014 session and close the “school-to-prison” pipeline.