October 20, 2015. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino and Sarasota County School Superintendent Lori White said they will work together to create alternatives to jail and school suspensions for delinquent students.
Speaking to more than a dozen church and synagogue congregations at a Sarasota United for Responsibility and Equity, or SURE meeting, DiPino and White said discipline in Sarasota County has become too heavy-handed.
DiPino said reducing the number of teenagers and students with arrest records is among her goals.
“I don’t believe that our kids should be going to jail or having criminal records for minor things — which a lot of the kids were being cited and arrested for — because they’re kids,” DiPino said. “That’s what we do when we grow up: We learn from our mistakes. But it takes a whole community like the people in this room to make sure these kids don’t make these mistakes again.”
Sarasota has one of the highest rates in the state of involving police in incidents involving student discipline.
Each district is required to submit a list of School Safety Incident Reports to the Florida Department of Education. Those incidents can range from a classroom disruption to a homicide.
More than 82 percent of those incidents in Sarasota County Schools were reported to law enforcement during the 2013-2014 school year, the fourth highest rate in the state. The Florida state average for reporting those incidents to law enforcement is about 38 percent. Not every reported incident results in arrest.
More than 11 percent of those referrals to law enforcement were for tobacco possession, according to DOE data. More than 17 percent of incidents referred to law enforcement were for battery, which can include fighting.
Members of SURE have lobbied local and statewide officials for years to reduce the number of students who are arrested and placed on out-of-school suspension for relatively benign offenses.
Part of that work culminated Oct. 1, when an administrative order went into effect making civil citations the default form of law-enforcement-related punishment for first-time juvenile offenders who committed non-violent misdemeanors.
Civil citations are like arrests but are forwarded to the Department of Juvenile Justice rather than the local State Attorneys Office and keep students’ records clean.
Like juvenile arrests, the teenagers with civil citations would still be sent to a jail-diversion program, but after they successfully completed their work their cases would be closed.
Before Oct. 1, Sarasota was one of only eight counties in the state not to use a civil citation program.
As a result, Sarasota arrested more than 200 first-time juvenile offenders for misdemeanors in 2014. In Miami-Dade County, which is home to eight times as many children between the ages of 5 and 19 as Sarasota, arrested 160 such students during the same time period.
Those petty crimes stay on a juvenile’s record until they are 26 and can prevent them from going to college, qualifying for scholarships, joining the military or entering certain fields. Even cosmetology and most mechanic schools in the state would be off limits to a one-time juvenile offender who committed a misdemeanor.
Rev. Vincent Smith, a member of SURE who also leads the Trinity Christian Fellowship Center, said he has multiple parishioners who cannot find jobs or scholarships due to single misdemeanors on their juvenile records.
“I know one former student who had taken some baseball cards from Walmart when he was 14,” Smith said. “He went through college, got a law degree but couldn’t find a job in Sarasota because firms thought his record was a ‘liability.”
Another issue tackled by SURE was to create alternatives to out-of-school suspension.
Three years ago SURE members met with Superintendent White and asked her to look into a program called restorative justice, which aims to resolve conflicts and correct behavior by having students confront their issues rather than be suspended.
Its highlights include small group sessions where students open up about what is bothering them and how their behavior affects others.
The program was piloted at Emma E. Booker Elementary and Booker Middle School but had some issues during the first couple of years. It is now in all 24 public elementary schools and is beginning to spread to middle schools across the county.
Eventually it would include group remediation as an alternative to suspension. If one student is caught hitting another student, for example, a meeting between the two students and their parents would be called. Those at the meeting work to come to a resolution and to repair the harm that was done. The offending student would have to sign a behavior contract and would be placed in an alternative-to-suspension program such as community service.
The program is not quite at that level yet, but White said she hopes it will soon be added to the student code of conduct.
“Largely where we’re at now is to be more preventive in having a culture in the classroom that deals with these issues before they escalate,” White said.