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Broward County changes approach to handling student misdemeanors

Broward County, the seventh largest school district in the nation, has been struggling to fight its image as a "school-to-prison pipeline." The district, like many others nationwide attempting to create a serious learning environment, has adopted zero-tolerance policies for student misbehavior.

Unfortunately, these policies can backfire when students are routinely suspended or arrested for small offenses. Rather than achieving the desired result of a better public school education, students are instead accumulating criminal records for issues like tardiness or throwing spitballs. And with over two thirds of the students involved in these arrests and other criminal citations being black or Hispanic, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education, civil rights concerns have been raised.

The NAACP and law enforcement agencies recently reached a consensus with Broward County Public Schools about a revised code of conduct and updated disciplinary measures. Alternatives to the often counterproductive zero tolerance policies were negotiated. A more complex set of conflict resolution action steps was developed, which would place more accountability on principals instead of school resource officers. Instead of imprisonment, non-violent misdemeanor offenses would be handled through approaches like counseling and other less extreme steps.

A criminal record from high school can stay with a person for life. If a school's zero tolerance policy relies excessively on law enforcement approaches, students with behavioral or home challenges, substance abuse problems, disabilities or even the ordinary rebelliousness of teenagers may be internalizing potentially self-fulfilling identities as criminals.

While it is commendable that Broward County is working toward more compassionate and effective school conduct policies, there will most likely be a learning curve. Many students have already suffered from alleged injustices of these zero-tolerance policies, and some may even have specific civil rights complaints. Education attorneys will have their work cut out for them as the educational climate changes toward greater accountability. More parents and students who have suffered in silence, may now feel empowered to take on the system.

Source:  HuffPost Miami, "Nation's 7th Largest School District Takes Huge Step To Curb 'School To Prison Pipeline'" Christine Armario, Nov. 05, 2013

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