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Zero tolerance is toughest on minorities, NAACP says

The study argues that school policies are criminalizing minor adolescent misbehavior.

Published April 21, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - Too many students from Florida's largest school districts are being suspended or landing in the juvenile justice system for minor adolescent misbehavior, according to an NAACP study.

The harsh punishment needlessly tags a disproportionate number of minority students as criminals and keeps them from getting a thorough education, the study stated.

Zero-tolerance policies are "being used to criminalize petty acts of childish misconduct," said Monique Dixon, senior attorney for the the NAACP's Advancement Project. "Behavior once handled by a principal or a parent is now being handled by prosecutors and the police."

Last school year, almost 27,000 school-related referrals were made to the Department of Juvenile Justice, the study stated. The vast majority were for misdemeanor offenses including disorderly conduct, trespassing and battery.

Hillsborough led the state with with 2,245 referrals, the study stated. Some schools and districts are more diligent about reporting incidents than others.

The study also showed that out-of-school suspensions statewide rose 14 percent, from 385,365 in 1999-2000 to 441,694 last year, while the student population grew only 8 percent.

Black students, who comprise 23 percent of the student population, received 46 percent of the out-of-school suspensions and police referrals, the study stated.

"Solutions must both reduce the overall number of arrests and suspensions as well as address the notable racial and special education disparities," Olga Akselrod, assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, stated in a news release.

Stephen Hegarty, a spokesman for the Hillsborough school district, said the overall numbers did not come as a surprise. The district is working to strike a balance between campus safety and making sure students have every opportunity at getting an education, he said.

Hillsborough has worked with prosecutors to implement a civil citation system that should limit the number of student arrests for petty crimes.

Students caught for lesser crimes like trespassing or minor vandalism can receive a civil citation, the equivalent of a traffic ticket, instead of a misdemeanor charge, Hegarty said. The punishment can include community service. Students caught with guns or illegal drugs would still face criminal charges.

"We are looking for the perfect balance," Hegarty said. "Essentially, it says that we take these things seriously. We are trying to discourage this kind of behavior and punish this type of behavior, but without an arrest."

In Pinellas, school spokesman Sterling Ivey agreed that districts must balance student safety and education. The district is scheduling a workshop to dig into the data and come up with ideas to address the issue, he said.

"We are very aware that the discipline of minorities is a hot issue in Pinellas County," he said. "We are taking steps to alleviate sending kids into the juvenile justice system."

The district faces a challenge to whether it is fulfilling its obligations under the federal desegregation lawsuit that brought busing to Pinellas in 1971, followed years later by the controversial school choice plan. The challenge targets the achievement gap in Pinellas, where black students perform at levels 20 to 40 percentage points below their white peers and the disproportionate amount of discipline meted out to minority students.

Ivey said the district cannot ignore serious threats to its students. What begins as a school yard tussle, for instance, can escalate into a brawl unless properly addressed, he said. And guns were not much of a problem on campus 30 years ago, he added.

"Now we see them a lot more often," he said. "We are living in a different society. It requires us to be more vigilant."

[Last modified April 21, 2006, 01:41:14]

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