Bold Lesson: Florida School District Swaps Cops for Counseling

NBC News //Feb. 6, 2014 // 12:35 PM

By Raul Reyes, NBC News Contributor

A couple of years after arriving as superintendent of the Broward County Public Schools, Robert Runcie turned the district’s discipline policies upside down.

“Looking at the glaring expulsion, arrest and dropout rates for our black and Latino students, I knew that we had to do something dramatically different,” Runcie said.

He did away with calling in police for non-violent problems that could be handled by school officials in Fort Lauderdale-area schools that make up Florida’s sixth-largest school district.

Instead, he emphasized alternative approaches for the student body that is 29 percent Latino and 40 percent African-American. Students were referred to social workers and substance-abuse counselors. Detentions were held on Saturdays, in-school suspensions were used more, students were made to agree to behavior contracts and some were made to pay for any costs associated with misbehavior or to do community service.

The overhaul seems to be working, Runcie said.

“In terms of results, what we’ve seen so far is very encouraging,” he said. “Suspensions are down 66 percent, expulsions by 55 percent, and arrests by about 45 percent.”

Latino dropout rates nationwide are decreasing — a study of high school graduation rates found 78 percent of Hispanics graduated high school in 2010, an increase from 64 percent in 2000. A disciplinary approach which keeps students in the schools is important, said Patricia Gándara, co-director of the Civil Rights Project of University of California, Los Angeles.

“Removing so many poorly performing or problem students from our schools only encourages them to drop out and turns a school problem into a societal problem,” she stated.

Mirian Lopez, whose freshman son attends South Broward High School, said she has seen the benefits of this approach. Her son did go through suspension for an incident but also has been going to a counseling group.

“He came home and said how lucky he was compared to other students who had so many problems at home,” said Lopez in Spanish. “He realized what he did was dumb…I think talking to an adult who is not his parents or grandmother has been helpful. Sometimes they listen more to a different adult,” she added.

About 700 Broward County students have gone through the district’s new discipline program, with only 25-30 repeating it. “That tells us students are learning to change their behavior,” Runcie said, “and ultimately we hope to see improved achievement and graduation rates.”

Like Broward County, other school districts with significant Latino student populations have been rethinking their approach to school discipline. In 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is 73 percent Latino, revised its school discipline procedures. School districts in Baltimore, Chicago and Denver have also reformed their discipline policies, moving away from “zero tolerance” and towards more creative solutions.

In January, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said secondary schools have suspended or expelled an estimated two million students a year, and these punishments are being disproportionately applied to children of color and students with disabilities.

More than half of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are African-American or Latino.

2011 report by the National Council of La Raza found that every seven seconds during the school year, a Latino student is suspended; and that Latino students are 1.5 times more likely to be suspended and twice as likely to be expelled as their white peers. In Texas, where Hispanics are the majority in public schools, a groundbreaking longitudinal study found that nearly six in 10 public school students were suspended or expelled at least once between seventh and 12th grade.

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