Florida School District Aims To Block School-To-Prison Pipeline

The "school-to-prison pipeline" is what many activists call education policies that push troubled kids out of class, and into the criminal justice system. Broward County has taken steps to address those concerns by moving away from "zero tolerance" rules of discipline. Guest host Celeste Headlee discusses the new program with Marsha Ellison of the Broward County NAACP, and Michael Krezmien, a professor of student development at University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, ongoing violence in Democratic Republic of Congo isn't a new subject. But now, one of the main rebel groups there has announced they'll put down their weapons. We'll talk about what that means for the country just ahead. But first, a new partnership in Florida hopes to reduce the number of students who are turned over to law enforcement for minor offenses they commit at school.

Broward County, Fort Lauderdale is the county seat there, had the highest number of school related arrests in the state during the 2011-2012 school year. And the NAACP says those numbers are disproportionally made up of black and brown students. Joining us to talk about the new policy to address that is Marsha Ellison. She's the president of the Broward County-Fort Lauderdale NAACP chapter. Marsha, thanks for joining us.

MARSHA ELLISON: Thank you so much for having me.

HEADLEE: And also with us is Michael Krezmien. He's an assistant professor in the Department of Student Development at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Michael, thanks for being with us.

MICHAEL KREZMIEN: Hi, Celeste. It's great to be here.

HEADLEE: Marsha, let me begin with you. Why do we think that zero-tolerance policies might be at the root of black and brown students both being targeted and ending up in this - what's called the school-to-prison pipeline?

ELLISON: Because as we - the NAACP moved around the country and certainly within Broward County, and we met with the families, we met with law enforcement, we met with administration and found that the rules that were made, the code of conduct, the Disciplinary Matrix were all centered around the zero-tolerance rules that were put in place. And those - really, they felt took away the discretion of the school to discipline their children. And so they turned the disciplinary process over to law enforcement in way too many cases.

HEADLEE: And as I understand, some of these offenses were like throwing spit balls, or using a profanity in school, and that would end up with the kid going to - being arrested or being taken away by police.

ELLISON: They would be suspended, sometimes expelled and arrested. And in the state of Florida, once you have a student, or anyone who's been arrested, it stays in the system forever. So even if a kid was fortunate enough to have their record expunged, it would only be expunged from certain individuals because FDLE sold juvenile records. So this criminal record is floating around out there indefinitely. It's prevented individuals from getting jobs and getting into the military and, you know, services to their families - it's just been detrimental to the families, particularly in Broward County.

HEADLEE: You know, Michael, many of these zero-tolerance policies, which are now so common all across the country, I mean, the intentions were good, right? The intention was to help make schools more secure and safe for students. What happened along the way? How did they become part of this, as I mentioned, school-to-prison pipeline?

KREZMIEN: I think there's a few aspects of this, which are - they're pretty complicated. But I think it was initially out of the Gun-Free Schools Act, 1994, which was a response to school shootings. And the idea was, if we make mandatory school disciplinary expulsions, etc. for those types of offenses, we'll make schools safer. I think as new policies, like No Child Left Behind Act, which held schools to new sets of standards around academic performance - the notion that school disruption, for instance, was actually a real problem because it impacted how well schools could perform academically - started to get added into the mix in terms of these are also offenses which we can suspend kids for.

And I think, unfortunately, where we are now is sort of record rates of kids being suspended and expelled. And when you look at it, most of those suspensions are for things that, 20 or 30 years ago, a student would have gone and met with the principal and there probably would have been a conversation with home, and now there's just a mandatory suspension.

HEADLEE: And Marsha, I mean, the NAACP has said that even the zero-tolerance policies were implemented in a way that you kind of disproportionately affected black and brown students. How does getting rid of zero-tolerance policies change that? I mean, if there was bias among the school system in who got turned over to the police, isn't there also going to be bias with the school system in who gets disciplined, even without the zero-tolerance policy?

ELLISON: Well, we found that to be happening within Broward County schools. And so what has happened here in Broward that makes our system different now is that we looked at all entry points that children were being put into the pipeline. And we started with the Broward County School Code of Conduct, which has been totally revamped. We went on to the school disciplinary matrix, and what that says is that if a kid is accused of a certain infraction - no matter where they live, no what the color of skin - they will all be treated the same way.

So the disciplinary action will be fair and just across the board. It won't be a case where if a kid lived on the East Side and went to a nicer school that he or she would just, you know, just go back to class. And where if a kid who lived in a more urban school would be treated differently. So this has gone from practice to now policy. So the district policy has changed completely from where it was before.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're discussing a new partnership between Broward County schools in Florida and law enforcement agencies to reduce the number of students who are charged with crimes for minor offenses. We're talking about this with - you just heard - Broward County NAACP president Marsha Ellison, and also Michael Krezmien of the University Massachusetts Amherst. Michael, I mean, you work with student development.

Help me understand this - this is the third time I've mentioned it - the school-to-prison pipeline because sometimes the wisdom is that a kid can be scared straight, right? I mean, they commit an offense. They get arrested. Once they have that interaction with law enforcement, it scares them enough that they go straight for the rest of their career. Instead, that doesn't seem to be happening. Is it instead the case that once they have that engagement with law enforcement it knocks them off track?

KREZMIEN: Yeah. I would say that's more accurate than the notion of scared straight, which actually has not been shown to be effective at reducing student misbehavior or likelihood of being - reoffending. And I think the reality is that once you get to be part of the court system and once you become part of the juvenile justice system, not only is there kind of a label attached to the student, but the schools look at these children very differently. And these students are often targeted to, you know, let's look at them more closely, and their behaviors now are looked at differently from a student who is exhibiting the exact same behavior but hasn't been involved with the court and isn't viewed as, you know, a criminal or a delinquent.

HEADLEE: And, Marsha, is there worry that this is maybe taking away some tools for teachers and principals who are trying to keep their classrooms quiet and calm?

ELLISON: Well, actually, it's added more tools. The interventions have been introduced into the system. Before no one would deal with the individual child and their issue. What has happened now in Broward County schools is there is a program that's called PROMISE. And what PROMISE is that when a kid is accused of an infraction, the administration will be the first one that knows about it. What was happening before is law enforcement would be around and maybe see something, and maybe even make the arrest without school administrators even knowing what happened or having any say-so in what was going on. So now each child will be sent to the administrator.

There will be an evaluation of the situation to determine what, if any, disciplinary action would happen. Also to make sure that if there are - the children does - the family has needs that are not being addressed, which is causing this child act out, those families and children will be channeled into interventions that'll be provided by a list of providers that are working with the school district to make sure that whatever their issue is, it's been addressed. I mean, it could be a kid may have been acting out because they're homeless or because they're being abused. There are a lot of things that are going on within a child's life these days. And so now what has happened is there have been more tools placed in the teachers and the administrators' toolbox as a byproduct of this agreement that's been signed.

HEADLEE: But, Michael, at the same time, those kids may still act out. I mean, this isn't going to solve the homeless problem. This doesn't make a kid's home life more stable, more secure. It also does not make a kid trust authority figures, whether they be law enforcement or the principal of a school any more than before. How does this address the underlying problems that sometimes cause kids to act out?

KREZMIEN: Well, I do - I think that what Marsha's pointing out - I think does address some of that. So I think that the idea is that teachers are responding more - in more of a supportive fashion when a student is disruptive. So as opposed to a student being disruptive in class and the teacher getting into some altercation and sending the student to the office with a referral, which will end up as a suspension, those teachers are being trained to respond more sort of pro-socially to these types of behaviors. And I think - I think students do respond and understand that, when the consequence isn't always the same - that you aren't just been suspended, but we're trying to put in a plan to support you to be more behaviorally appropriate in class, we're, you know - the system that Marsha's talking about is one in which the greater the level of need that the kids have, the greater number of supports that come into place.

HEADLEE: OK.

KREZMIEN: So I think that it does operate to support kids as opposed to have them in the same situation.

HEADLEE: Well, then let me get Marsha's response to that same question, in terms of how this addresses the underlying issues that cause kids to act out. Marsha?

ELLISON: Well, the - addressing the kid's issue involves counseling. It involves, in some cases, removing that child from the classroom, but not from the class work that he or she would have been getting. And going - they have a site that's called a PROMISE - several PROMISE sites - where they have an opportunity to do certain activities. They are channeled into certain resources that will address their issue once it's determined. There is actually a team of professionals put together that will work with each child to figure what their issue is, and how best to address it because there are families out there that are in need of services of many kinds, but they don't know where to get them.

And through this program, they'll actually be addressed right there on campus and through the administrations. And when you have the teachers, and even sometimes some of the SROs, who realizes the situation that a kid has going on at home, then they address it in a different way.

HEADLEE: Yeah. They can help them, yeah. School resource officers. And we'll have to end the conversation there, though. It's really interesting. That's Marsha Ellison, president of the Broward County-Fort Lauderdale NAACP. She joined us from the Lauderdale-By-The-Sea, Florida. And Michael Krezmien is an assistant professor in the Department of Student Development at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He joined us from member station WFCR on the campus. Thanks to both of you.

KREZMIEN: Thanks, Celeste.

ELLISON: Thank you.

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