MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. In Florida, one of the nation's largest school districts has overhauled its discipline policies. The intent is to reduce the number of children going into the juvenile justice system. The state is moving away from so-called zero tolerance policies, rules that require schools to call police even for minor infractions.
Critics call those rules a school-to-prison pipeline and civil rights and education activists believe the new rules in Broward County could be a model for the nation. NPR's Greg Allen reports from Fort Lauderdale.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: 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 not by police, but by the schools.
LAURIE RICH LEVINSON: With great pleasure, II-1 has passed unanimously.
ALLEN: 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, fueled by concerns about gang violence and school shootings.
But in Broward County, the nation's seventh largest school district, began looking seriously at changing its policies two years ago. The district superintendent, Robert Runcie, had just taken the job and was troubled.
ROBERT RUNCIE: We saw huge differentials in achievement gaps among white, black and Hispanic students. Black males in particular were in probably some of the worst situations in this district.
ALLEN: 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 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 says although African-American kids make up just 40 percent of the school district's population, they account for 71 percent of the school arrests.
ELIJAH WILLIAMS: We had the highest arrest rate in the state of Florida, which coincidentally, we had the highest drop-out rate.
ALLEN: 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. 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.
MARIA MARTINEZ: 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.
ALLEN: 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 here credit Clayton County, Georgia, with leading the way and school districts in Wichita, Kansas, Columbus, Ohio, and Birmingham, Alabama, are just a few of many already following suit.
But Marsha Ellison of the local NAACP said this agreement goes further than the other programs.
MARSHA ELLISON: 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. And they've changed their matrix. That has not happened across the country.
ALLEN: The NAACP is involved in a number of lawsuits challenging school discipline policies across the country. Ellison says this agreement shows a better way to begin dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. Greg Allen, NPR News, Fort Lauderdale.