A Jacksonville, Fla., police program that identifies the most disruptive students in each school is under fire from civil rights and community groups that claim it disproportionately affects black youths.
The program, Managing At Risk Students, or MARS, is run by the Jacksonville sheriff’s office in cooperation with the 129,000-student Duvall County school system. The program singles out students for such intervention as a police officer meeting regularly in school with the students, visiting students’ homes, or meeting with their parents.
The Rev. R.L. Gundy, the pastor of Mount Sinai Baptist Church in Jacksonville, argues that the effort fails to notify parents when their children are put on the lists and puts minority students at risk of being unfairly targeted by “culturally insensitive” teachers.
Of the students identified under the program since it started this year, Mr. Gundy said, roughly 65 percent were African-American. Forty-three percent of the district’s students are black, and 47 percent are white.
“The majority of teachers in our schools aren’t sensitive to the [African-American] kids and the garbage they bring into the classroom, so they just give them all these [discipline referrals],” which, Mr. Gundy said, makes those students more likely candidates for intervention under the MARS program.
Mr. Gundy, who heads the subcommittee of the Jacksonville mayor’s committee on juvenile justice that is studying MARS, initially called for the program to be suspended. But now that Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford has agreed publicly that the program needs revisions, he said he’s willing to help make the changes.
“They’re profiling students, and that’s illegal,” Mr. Gundy added.
The goal of MARS, according to information from the sheriff’s office, is to “establish a proactive and consistent method of assessing students who have been identified through defined behavioral patterns as being ‘at risk’ so that school resource officers can provide intensive, individualized interventions for students with severe behavioral problems.”
Using discipline data from the Duvall County school district and matching it with arrest records and other juvenile-justice information, the police department identifies the 25 most “at risk” students in middle and high schools, and requires each school police officer to intervene with at least five of the youngsters on each list.
Gloria R. Lockley, the director of student services for the Duvall County schools, said the sheriff’s department has agreed to make some changes to the program, including notifying parents when their children are placed on the intervention list. As for race-based complaints about MARS, Ms. Lockley said many of the schools that are most affected also have large numbers of minority students.
The Jacksonville sheriff’s office, which did not return a phone call for comment, has 46 police officers assigned to the school district.
The officers must track and work with the students they select for an entire school year, unless the officers document “dramatic” improvements in behavior.
Mr. Gundy and representatives of the Jacksonville branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People laud the stated goals of the program, but want the children on the watch lists exposed to more than just police intervention.
“The police should inform parents when a child is identified and call on community resources,” such as churches and youth programs to help intervene, said Ernest Griffin, a vice president of the Jacksonville NAACP, which is calling for a suspension of MARS “until such time that it can be tweaked to meet the concerns of the community.”