New law to help keep students out of justice system
The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice is anticipating a drop in the number of children referred for criminal acts following the approval of legislation changing zero tolerance policies in schools.
Senate Bill 1540 was presented to Gov. Charlie Crist in mid-May, and the governor signed it last week at a high school in Jacksonville.
State officials expect it to divert many children away from the juvenile justice system.
“This legislation maintains Florida’s strict school safety policies while reducing the unintended consequences that have led to the wrongful placement of students in the juvenile justice system,” said Crist during the bill signing June 17.
The law forces school boards to revise their zero tolerance policies so children are not referred to law enforcement for “petty infractions,” and asks districts with corporal punishment policies to review the policies once every three years in a public setting.
School districts are being asked to individually define petty infractions.
According to data released by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, 15 percent of all referrals to the juvenile justice system were from schools. Sixty-nine percent were for first-time offenders who committed acts equivalent to misdemeanors or lesser infractions.
The Lee County School District had a total of 362 first-time offenders referred to the Department of Juvenile Justice in the 2007-08 school year — 242 of those students, or 67 percent, being referred for the first time.
Statewide there were 19,362 students referred to the juvenile justice system, and 59 percent of them were first-time offenders.
Joe Donzelli, spokesperson for the Lee County School District, said the bill goes into effect in July and will require staff attorneys to revise the current district policy.
According to school policy 4.08, any students committing any one of a number of offenses — ranging from homicide, sexual battery, armed robbery, possession of a controlled substance or firearm, or arson, for example — are recommended for expulsion.
The Lee County School District also immediately notifies law enforcement officials if a student has violated the policy.
Serious infractions will remain in the policy, but infractions deemed petty will be excluded.
“It looks as if right now the potential is you may have 67 different definitions of petty acts of misconduct,” said Donzelli. “We will start the process and try to do it as quickly as we can, but we want to make sure we do it the right way.”
Staff attorneys from the school district are meeting with administrators to draft a definition of petty acts of misconduct, he said.
Samadhi Jones, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, said a majority of the referrals statewide are for a “disruption of school functions,” which is interpreted differently between schools and teachers.
A referral for “disruption of school functions” could range from a student talking loudly in class to a shoving match in the lunchroom, she said. The acts are not excusable, but they should not require a student to enter the juvenile justice system.
“What this law will help to do is make sure that those children who are finding their way to the juvenile justice system are the ones who are actually posing a threat to school safety,” said Jones.
Legislation such as the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 1994 was created after acts of school violence began surfacing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including the massacre at Columbine High School.
Jones said states later drafted their own versions of safe school legislation, but Florida left the definition vague and districts interpreted it differently.
In 2008 the Department of Juvenile Justice hosted a zero tolerance conference where it invited officials from the state’s 67 school districts, school resource officers, judges, local law enforcement officers and others for assistance in drafting the bill.
The resulting law changed the definition of petty acts, but it is ultimately striving to keep children safe in schools.
“It’s keeping children safe in schools and making sure petty acts of misconduct weren’t criminalized to the point where a child was inappropriately referred to juvenile justice,” said Jones.
Addressing corporal punishment policies once every three years is another major part of the legislation.
Some school districts in Florida continue to employ corporal punishment. Data on school punishment from the Florida Department of Education showed that 30 school districts reported acts of corporal punishment in the 2007-08 school year.
Also that school year, 865 acts of corporal punishment were reported in Jackson County, 517 in Santa Rosa County and 216 in Hendry County.
Donzelli said Lee County does not have a corporal punishment policy, nor will it create one.
Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Frank Peterman thanked the governor and legislators for passing SB 1540.
“This law will help reshape zero-tolerance policies in a way that will reduce the number of children entering the juvenile justice system, and better address misbehavior in our schools without jeopardizing school safety,” he said in a prepared statement.