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Thursday, Sep 18, 2014

Pinellas schools aim to reduce student arrests

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LARGO — A new disciplinary policy could ensure that students in Pinellas County schools rarely find themselves in handcuffs.

School board members said during their Thursday workshop that they would like to move forward with the creation of a new policy emulating one Broward County enacted this school year. In Broward, the school board formed an agreement with local law enforcement agencies to ensure that students who commit “nonviolent, minor offenses,” don’t end up with a police record prematurely.

The measure doesn’t cut out disciplinary action completely — students that find themselves in violation of the law are required to complete a mandatory program that addresses the “what’s and why’s of behavior that got you in trouble to begin with and how to avoid it,” said Michael Bessette, associate superintendent of operational services.

In Broward, such misdemeanors include disruption of a school function, theft of less than $300, vandalism of less than $1,000, disorderly conduct, trespassing, criminal mischief, gambling, loitering or prowling, harassment, alcohol-related incidents, possession of cannabis or drug paraphernalia, threats and obstructing justice without violence.

In Florida, about 63 percent of school arrests are for nonviolent, minor offenses, Bessette said. Many times, students are arrested at school for crimes committed off school grounds, simply because police know that they can be found in the classroom, said board member Rene Flowers.

“We know what happens to children when that gets on their record,” Flowers said. “We’ve all talked about how we don’t want everything to be a suspension if it doesn’t have to be, and for some nonviolent minor offenses this gives children opportunities instead of penalizing, then trying to draw them back.”

At the school board workshop Oct. 17, Bessette said there had been 121 student arrests so far this school year in Pinellas County, while 154 students were arrested during the same time frame last school year. About 20 percent of those arrests were for disruption. Before enacting the comprehensive protocol for student referrals and arrests, Broward County saw 1,062 school-related arrests in the 2011-12 school year, 71 percent of which were for nonviolent misdemeanors.

“They’re trying to have school officials be first responders before it gets to law enforcement, even if law enforcement is first on the scene,” Bessette said. “It would have to be a violent or felony crime for law enforcement to step right through it,” Bessette said. “We’re always looking at finding another alternative beyond the arrest. I think it would be a service to our kids, teachers, staff and community not to get kids into the criminal justice system that don’t need to be there.”

The Broward discipline matrix is very specific to grade level, offense and the number of times a student has committed the infraction, Bessette said. In Pinellas, such a matrix would ensure that students who get in trouble for the same thing are always dealt with fairly and in the same way, he said.

Board members were very supportive of adopting or creating a similar agreement to Broward’s and Bessette said he will meeting with local law enforcement agencies and Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who was also “very much in favor,” in January.

“Over the years we’ve come down in the number of student arrests, but we haven’t had something like this,” said board member Linda Lerner.

adawson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-9851

Twitter: @adawsonTBO

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