School Climate & Safety

Groups Accuse Fla. Districts of Harsh Discipline Approaches

By Catherine Gewertz — May 02, 2006 4 min read
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Policies that take a “zero tolerance” approach to student misbehavior are being overused in Florida, resulting in hundreds of thousands of arrests and suspensions, often for minor misconduct, a report has found.

The study was sparked by an incident that drew national attention a year ago, in which a St. Petersburg kindergartner was handcuffed and arrested after a temper tantrum. (“Handcuffing of Children Raises Questions,” May 18, 2005.)

“Arresting Development: Addressing the School Discipline Crisis in Florida” is available from the Advancement Project.

In the wake of that incident, the Florida State Conference NAACP, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Advancement Project, a Washington-based civic-advocacy group, examined how zero-tolerance discipline policies were being implemented in the Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Pinellas, and Palm Beach county school districts. They convened public hearings around the state to gather public reaction.

The report, “Arresting Development,” released April 20, summarizes their findings.

The groups concluded that an overly harsh approach to student misbehavior is a statewide problem. In the 2004-05 academic year, three-quarters of the nearly 27,000 student cases that were referred to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice were for misdemeanor offenses, such as disorderly conduct or trespassing, the report says.

Out-of-school suspensions are used increasingly by districts statewide, it says. They rose 14 percent between the 1999-2000 and 2004-05 school years, from 385,400 to 441,700, even though the student population grew by only 8 percent during that period, the report says.

Those discipline practices are used disproportionately on African-American students and those with disabilities, the study found. Black students make up 23 percent of Florida’s students, but received 46 percent of the out-of-school suspensions and police referrals in 2004-05, according to the report.

The three groups argue that while some districts have decreased the number of suspensions they issue, they are still using suspensions and police too often to manage discipline matters.

‘Local Decisions’

Cathy Schroeder, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education, said that without a case-by-case analysis of arrest data, it is impossible to judge whether children are being inappropriately charged.

“[The report says] that many assault and battery charges were ‘nothing more than a schoolyard fight,’ ” she said last week. “But what does ‘assault’ mean? That a child shoved someone, or that they knifed someone? That would be a big difference.”

Florida offers programs and training for school personnel in developing “positive behavior-management techniques,” but whether districts use them is “largely a local decision,” Ms. Schroeder said.

Schools should reserve law enforcement and out-of-school suspension as disciplinary tools in only the most severe cases, the groups that produced the report argue. Far more cases should be managed through prevention and intervention programs, expanded counseling, conflict resolution, and better training in classroom management, they say.

“Our children need our help, not handcuffs,” the report says.

Testimony at the public hearings detailed experiences such as that of a middle school student who was charged with throwing a “deadly missile”—a second-degree felony—because he had put a can of soda on a fence and thrown rocks at it. In another case, according to the report, a student was arrested and charged with disrupting a school function for shouting “whoo-whoo!” while watching a fight between two other students.

Public defenders who represent children in such cases testified at the hearings that they view many of the cases as unworthy of criminal prosecution. “Even the judges roll their eyes and say, ‘What are you doing in my courtroom?’ ” the report quotes one public defender as saying.

Richard Arum, a New York University sociology professor and the author of the 2003 book Judging School Discipline, agreed that schools turn too often to law enforcement to manage student misbehavior. But he said the study overlooks the complexity of misbehavior’s causes, so its suggested solutions don’t go far enough. Part of students’ disruptive behavior is a response to disorderly, disrespectful learning environments, Mr. Arum said, and children from low-income families and from minority groups disproportionately attend school in such settings.

Trusting Relationships

To address those problems, schools must have more engaging curricula, and more “intimate” learning environments where adults can truly know and watch over their students, he said. With such trusting relationships as a foundation, adults could effectively take a proactive but strict approach to discipline that would build a respectful school culture, he said.

Philip K. Howard, the founder of Common Good, a New York City-based nonprofit group that advocates a more restrained use of legal remedies in schools, said teachers and principals also must be empowered to exercise something he believes they lost as the cause of students’ due-process rights advanced in the past few decades: the authority to use their judgment about how to manage misbehavior.

A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2006 edition of Education Week as Groups Accuse Fla.Districts of Harsh Discipline Approaches

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