Still Haven’t Shut Off the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Evaluating the Impact of Florida’s New Zero-Tolerance Law

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It was only five years ago that two police officers pinned down five-year-old kindergarten student Ja’eisha Scott down onto a table, handcuffed her, and dragged her out of school and into a police cruiser after throwing a tantrum during a jelly bean counting game.1 They then refused to release Ja’eisha into her mother’s cus- tody, keeping her in the back of the car for hours. The video that captured the infamous incident – showing the tears streaming down the tiny child’s face and unmistakable look of fear in her eyes – has been forever imprinted in the minds of many who saw it.

Just two years later, in Avon Park, six-year-old Desre’e Watson was also handcuffed, arrested, and taken away from school in a police car after a tantrum in her kindergarten class. Desre’e’s wrists were so small that the handcuffs had to be placed around her biceps. She was taken to county jail, fingerprinted, had a mug shot taken, and was charged with a felony and two misdemeanors.

Many of the more than 20,000 referrals from Florida schools to the juvenile justice system that occurred each year were similarly outrageous. Many others were simply unnecessary. In response, a groundswell of grassroots advocacy emerged across the state, with youth, parents, and other community members speaking out against these harsh, “zero-tolerance” disciplinary practices and the School-to-Prison Pipe- line that had been created in Florida. These determined advocates demanded action from the legislature, and in the spring of 2009, Florida’s lawmakers responded. They passed a new zero-tolerance law (SB 1540), which urged Florida schools to limit the use of law enforcement intervention and other severe punishments for school behavior.

Finally, after nearly a decade of embarrassing news reports and studies about the devastating effects of harsh school disciplinary practices in Florida schools, the State was apparently moving in the right direction. Indeed, the law propelled Florida to the forefront of school discipline reform nationally. The stage was set for meaningful reform of school discipline practices in Florida, with the hope that student misbehavior would once again be dealt with in less damaging and more developmentally appropriate ways. Yet sadly, just a few months after Governor Crist signed SB 1540 into law, in October 2009, a 14-year-old student in Lehigh Acres was tasered by a school resource officer during a schoolyard fight at her middle school. And just this past October, we were reminded once again of the progress still to be made, as police were called to a Fort Pierce elementary school to handle yet another “unruly” five-year- old child having a tantrum.

An analysis was launched to determine how effectively the changes made in Tallahassee were reaching the students in Florida’s school districts. We reviewed and analyzed zero tolerance policies and codes of conduct from 55 out of the 67 total districts within the state.11 We also reviewed the available school discipline data from the last school year. Our key finding is:

While there has been some encouraging progress, the implementation of Florida’s new zero-tolerance law has fallen substantially short of what is needed to adequately address the over-criminalization of Florida’s youth and the over-reliance on exclusionary discipline by Florida’s schools.

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ACLU of Florida, Advancement Project, Florida State Conference of the NAACP

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