In Florida, one of the nation's largest school districts has overhauled its discipline policies with a single purpose in mind — to reduce the number of children going into the juvenile justice system.
It's a move away from so-called "zero tolerance" policies that require schools to refer even minor misdemeanors to the police. Critics call it a "school to prison pipeline."
Civil rights and education activists say the policy can be a model for the nation.
Under a new program adopted by the Broward County School District, non-violent misdemeanors — even those that involve alcohol, marijuana or drug paraphernalia — will now be handled by the schools instead of the police.
At a school board meeting today in Fort Lauderdale, a room full of lawyers, judges, police and educators applauded chair Laurie Rich Levinson's announcement.
"Zero tolerance" school policies became the norm across the country over the last 20 years and were fueled by concerns about gang violence and school shootings.
But Broward County, the nation's seventh largest school district, began looking seriously at changing its policies two years ago. District superintendent, Robert Runcie had just taken the job and was troubled.
"We saw huge differentials in achievement gaps among white, black and Hispanics students," Runcie said. "Black males in particular were in probably some of the worst situation in this district."
One of the first things Runcie did was order the district to compile its numbers on suspensions, arrests and expulsions — and they were startling. In 2010 and 2011, there were more than 1,000 school-related arrests, and nearly three-quarters of them were for non-violent misdemeanors.
Just as troubling is that in Florida and around the country, minorities are disproportionately affected — especially black males. State judge Elijah Williams said that although African-American kids make up just 40 percent of the school district's population, they account for 71 percent of the school arrests.
"We had the highest arrest rate in the state of Florida. And coincidentally, we had the highest drop-out rate," Williams said.
Although the agreement was signed today, the policies were adopted at the beginning of the school year. It's a series of counseling sessions, activities and interventions called the "Promise" program.
Officials say they're already seeing a steep drop in school-related arrests. And the Promise program is helping students like 17-year-old Maria Martinez. She's a senior and doesn't want to give details about what got her into trouble. But she said she was very nearly arrested.
"During my suspension, I went to the Promise program and it saved me. It saved my behind. If not, I would have been in bars, or behind bars," Martinez said.
Martinez said she's now getting ready to apply to college, and hopes to become a nurse or doctor.
Broward County is far from the only school district re-evaluating its zero tolerance disciplinary policies. Officials in Broward credit Clayton County, Ga. with leading the way. School districts in Wichita, Kan., Columbus, Ohio, and Birmingham, Ala., are just a few of many already following suit.
But Marcia Ellison, a member of the local NAACP, said this agreement goes further than the other programs: "What Broward has done is gone to make sure the administration is truly back in charge of the school. They have changed their school code of conduct which was a tool of funneling these kids. That has not happened across the country."
The NAACP is involved in a number of lawsuits challenging school discipline policies across the country. Ellison said this agreement shows a better way to begin dismantling the school to prison pipeline.
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