NAACP Report Says Florida Schools Are Criminalizing Schoolchildren

Published July 1, 2006

After an examination of school discipline practices in Florida released this spring, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) recommended clarifying law enforcement’s role in disciplinary procedures, saying minority children are being unnecessarily criminalized instead of merely disciplined at school.

The Florida State Conference of the NAACP, the Advancement Project, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund released “Arresting Development: Addressing the School Discipline Crisis in Florida.” The report is the result of town hall meetings held in six of Florida’s largest school districts, in Jacksonville, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, St. Petersburg, Tampa, and West Palm Beach.

The meetings were held as a forum for concerned parents, school administrators, teachers, law enforcement officers, and staff of the Department of Juvenile Justice to comment on school discipline practices in their areas after a five-year-old girl was arrested at a Pinellas County public school in 2005 for disruptive behavior in class.

The report found many school districts have stopped using traditional disciplinary measures–such as counseling, detention, and extra homework–and are turning to the legal system to handle even minor offenses.

“High-stakes testing has caused teachers to teach to the test and spend less time addressing behavior,” said coauthor Monique Dixon, senior attorney for the Advancement Project, an organization that works for education, democracy, and urban peace for the disenfranchised. “Teachers’ automatic response is to involve another administrator, which is often a police officer.”

Suspensions Outpace Enrollment Growth

According to the report, out-of-school suspensions in Florida have outpaced the growth of student population by two to one. Black students contribute disproportionately to the trend, receiving 46 percent of the out-of-school suspensions and police referrals, even though they account for only 22.8 percent of the overall student population. The report cites what it characterizes as broad and unclear “zero-tolerance” policies, resource deficiencies, and perverse incentives created by accountability testing to remove low-scoring children from school.

The six meetings showed district discipline policies are often misunderstood by teachers, administrators, and police officers. Campus police officers enforce the law, which now includes offenses such as “school disruption” and “disorderly conduct.” Witnesses testified that parents are often not present during police questioning, and that school resource officers do not know how to identify or interact with disabled students, potentially creating unsafe situations for special-needs children.

Hurting Families

When students are channeled into the criminal justice system, minor transgressions can have serious consequences for their families. For example, the Miami-Dade Housing Authority evicts families with school-age children who are out of school for more than 15 unexcused days in any 90-day period. According to the report, only 42 percent of Miami students suspended during ninth grade were still enrolled in eleventh grade, suggesting those students are likely to drop out.

The report concluded that because there is no evidence zero-tolerance measures alone effectively deter misbehavior, they should be replaced by prevention and intervention programs. Other recommendations involved clarifying the role and responsibilities of school police and getting parents more involved with schools.

Jenny Rothenberg ([email protected]) is a public relations associate at Step Up for Students, a Tampa-based initiative of the Florida Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

For more information …

“Arresting Development: Addressing the School Discipline Crisis in Florida” is available online at