When Robert Runcie became the new superintendent for Broward County schools, a populous part of metropolitan Miami, Fla., he knew the rising tide of student arrests needed reversing.
In 2010 and 2011, police made more than 1,000 arrests at his schools, and nearly 70 percent were for non-violent misdemeanors – such as truancy or smoking. These arrests disproportionately affected his African-American and Latino students. Even though students of color were 40 percent of the student body, they accounted for 71 percent of arrests.
A coalition of concerned citizens, community leaders and elected officials pushed for a new policy that would reduce the number of students with criminal records. The new initiative, started at the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year, redirects students to counseling and support services instead of reporting minor infractions to the police.
This initiative lines up with a policy shift advocated by the U.S. Justice Department. “A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” said Attorney General Eric Holder.
Both the Justice Department and the U.S. Department of Education released guidelines in early January asking districts to institute fairer policies, noting that “racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.” The guidelines suggest eliminating out-of-school suspensions, providing conflict resolution training for teachers, and collecting data on infractions to monitor any potential discrimination.
The new policy is considered a correction to “zero tolerance” policies that spread in the early 1990s. Zero tolerance forced school administrators to call the police whatever happened, stripping school staff of discretion and case-by-case judgment. Under zero tolerance policies, students of color are three times more likely to face suspensions or expulsion than white students. Responding to this data, the ACLU and the NAACP have pressed for better, fairer approaches to school discipline.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan stressed schools can be safe and orderly and “keep students in class where they can learn.”