It used to be that getting in a schoolyard fight meant a trip to the principal’s office—detention, maybe. But in Florida, more than any other state, that schoolyard fight can lead to the student’s arrest and even felony charges. Last year 12,000 students were arrested 13,870 times in Florida public schools, the Orlando Sentinel reported. The arrests are meted out unevenly. Black students are just 21 percent of Florida youth, but make up 46 percent of all school-related referrals to law enforcement, according to the Sun Sentinel.
The majority of the arrests, 67 percent, were for infractions like fist fights, dress-code violations, and talking back—schoolyard misbehavior that, in Florida and elsewhere, increasingly results in misdemeanor criminal charges. “The vast majority of children being arrested in schools are not committing criminal acts,” Wansley Walters, secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, told the Orlando Sentinel.
While Florida is not alone in turning to police to discipline young people, it has the distinction of being the nation’s leader in school-based arrests. Last year, Florida produced the highest documented number of school-based arrests in the country—and that number was an improvement over previous years. In 2005, Florida made 28,000 arrests in school. It has logged a 39 percent drop in school arrests over the last seven years, according to the Department of Juvenile Justice. (PDF)
In most cases, 69 percent, the juvenile justice system ultimately dismisses or otherwise diverts the charges. But experts say getting hauled away from school in handcuffs nonetheless has a lifelong impact.
David Utter, director of the Florida Youth Initiative at the Southern Poverty Law Center, notes that getting arrested is, at a basic psychological level, a “highly traumatic” experience for young people. It can precipitate the breakdown in trust between young people and the adults in their lives, making what should be a welcoming and nurturing environment a hostile place.