By Attorney Melba Pearson
Special to THELAW.TV
The school-to-prison pipeline. You may have never heard of it, but it is a growing issue. Across the nation, students are being arrested for minor offenses. Offenses that twenty years ago would have gotten the student sent home, given detention, or, at worst, suspended. Now, students are getting criminal records for misdemeanor charges such as loitering, trespass, and disorderly conduct — which boils down to fighting, staying on school grounds after hours, or being disruptive in class.
Last week, the country's sixth largest school district, located in Broward County, Florida, took a large step in a new direction. The superintendent of Broward County's schools came together with the state attorney's office, the police department, and the NAACP to empower school principals to decide when and how students would be arrested. In the past, it was the school resource officer who made these determinations. The NAACP became involved, because they noted that a large amount of those arrested were students of color … and their peers were receiving warnings instead.
The new policy states that for non-violent charges like trespassing, harassment, incidents related to alcohol, possession of a misdemeanor amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, school officials are to work it out in house without an arrest. Options for punishment, in addition to traditional means, include participation in a week-long counseling program. No student would be arrested for a first time non-violent misdemeanor, but repeat offenses will receive an escalation in punishment. After a fifth incident, students are referred to law enforcement. The police will still handle felonies or serious threats.
This school-to-prison pipeline issue may be occurring as a result of our shifting society. In years past, there was a parent or relative who would be available to take a child from school. Schools were more engaged with the family and the community. Now, with many parents working more than one job to make ends meet, or parents who are the head of a single parent household, it is easier for the school to call the police than for the parent to leave work. Some parents may be short on patience, and hope that an encounter with the criminal justice system will "scare them straight." Other parents may have deeper issues preventing them from being a role model and disciplinarian.
On the other side, many schools and teachers are overworked and underfunded. "Zero tolerance," rather than taking the time to work with the child, is perceived as easier when resources are stretched thin. Lastly, many beneficial after school programs, including organized sports, arts/crafts, and meals programs, have been cut in an attempt to save money. These programs are instrumental in keeping kids on the right track, keeping them busy with positive activities. In these days of recessions and budget cuts, lawmakers need to be mindful of the trickle-down effect the lack of programming has on students, including an increase in criminal activity.
The key problem lays in the fact that very rarely does the criminal justice system help a child. That initial contact often lays the groundwork for repeated criminal conduct, due to the child being exposed to more experienced teens. Additionally, the child now develops a criminal record, which becomes a problem when applying for jobs, as well as financial aid for college.
The bottom line is, it takes a village to raise a child. As a prosecutor, I handled juvenile cases early in my career. The majority of the kids I saw were not bad kids. It was the usual mischief that kids have gotten into from the beginning of time. But putting kids in the system without addressing the underlying issues that caused the behavior is a formula for disaster. Broward County has already seen a decrease in arrests as a result of this program, with positive feedback being given all around. I hope that other school districts take their rightful place as a safe haven for learning, rather than a route to prison.
The author Melba Pearson is a prosecutor in South Florida. Follow her on Twitter @ResLegalDiva.
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