By Jeremy Thompson
The U.S. incarceration rate has increased 700% since 1970. As a result, the U.S. has the highest prison population in the world. In the U.S., only 12% of the population is Black. Yet, despite living in a “post-racial,” “colorblind” society,” 38% of the prison population is composed of Blacks. Part of this disparity stems from the disparate impact of zero-tolerance policies in school discipline. These policies were influenced by the fear of the media-driven “Black super predator;” the War on Drugs; three strikes laws; and school shootings. Similar to police officers’ implicit biases in the justice system, the implicit biases of teachers in schools is a primary reason why Black students are suspended and arrested at a rate two times greater than White students for the same offenses. The disparate impact of zero-tolerance policies has created a pipeline from school to prison. Suspension, expulsion, and arrest are often the first steps in a chain of events that lead to academic disengagement and delinquency. This phenomenon is recognized as the “School-to-Prison Pipeline,” which is a collection of punitive laws, policies, and practices that push young people, particularly Black students, out of school and into the justice system.
Over the past several years, several school districts in the U.S. have had positive outcomes as a result of replacing zero-tolerance policies with restorative justice policies. After eliminating zero-tolerance policies for petty acts and misdemeanors and adopting restorative justice policies, Broward County Public School District (“Broward County”), the sixth largest school district in the U.S., and Miami-Dade County Public School District (“Miami-Dade”), the fourth largest school district in the U.S., dramatically increased graduation rates and decreased arrests and suspensions. Both school districts are models for school districts wishing to eliminate the School-to-Prison Pipeline.
In 2009, Florida amended its zero-tolerance statute, which gave school districts the option of softening its zero-tolerance policies for petty acts of misconduct and misdemeanors. As a result, Broward County and Miami-Dade decided to adopt restorative justice disciplinary policies for petty acts of misconduct and misdemeanors. Broward County created the Preventing Recidivism through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Supports, and Education Program (“PROMISE”). Promise is an alternative to a suspension program. Promise is one part of a collaborative agreement between the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit; Broward County’s Public Defender’s Office, Sheriff’s Office and Prosecutor’s Office; the NAACP; the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice; the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board; and the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. Promise’s goal is to prevent students from entering the justice system. Instead of school suspensions or arrests for incidents such as theft, trespassing, drug possession, or disorderly conduct, students are sent to a designated education center where they receive counseling, behavioral services, and the opportunity to make-up school work. Students leaving Promise return to school with a success plan. 90% of students who complete Promise do not reoffend. Since its implementation in 2013, Broward County’s arrest rates decreased from 909 in the 2012-13 school year to 469 in 2014-15 school year. Additionally, since 2009, Broward County’s graduation rate has increased by 3%. For the 2015-16 school year, more than 79% of Broward County students graduated.
Miami-Dade also changed its disciplinary policies. Miami-Dade implemented a behavior support system into its student code of conduct. This system uses data to identify students’ needs and monitors students’ progress. This system requires teachers and school officials to use restorative measures before referring students for arrest, suspension, or expulsion. In 2014, Miami-Dade also created “Success Centers.” Success Centers are establishments that suspended students are required to attend. In the Success Centers, students receive therapy and are also required to complete schoolwork. Since 2009, Miami-Dade reduced school related arrests by 69%. Since 2005, Miami-Dade decreased outdoor suspensions by 44%. Thanks to these changes, in the 2015-16 school year, more than 80% of Miami-Dade students graduated (Miami-Dade’s highest graduation rate ever).
The success that Miami-Dade and Broward County have experienced demonstrates that school districts can implement policies to eliminate the School-to-Prison Pipeline. School districts should focus on creating policies that limit the implicit biases schoolteachers have and on establishing programs that can help students. The statistics show that restorative justice policies decrease arrest rates and increase graduation rates. By adopting programs similar to Miami-Dade and Broward County, other school districts can help eliminate the School-to-Prison Pipeline and decrease the disparate incarceration rates in the U.S.
 Jeremy Thompson recently graduated from Florida International University (“FIU”) College of Law in 2016. At FIU, Jeremy served as the National Black Law Students Association’s Director of Education and Career Development. He is now an Honors Attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, Executive Office For Immigration Review. Jeremy is also an adjunct at Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law.
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