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Zero Tolerance Bill Passes Legislature

Department of Juvenile Justice priority bill heads to Governor Charlie Crist for his signature

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Tallahassee -- The Florida Legislature has passed SB 1540, a priority of the Department of Juvenile Justice dealing with zero tolerance policies in schools. The bill requires that children no longer be referred to law enforcement for minor violations such as bringing plastic butter knives to school, drawing pictures of guns or throwing an eraser.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, and Rep. Jennifer Carroll, R-Fleming Island, sponsored the House version. The bill will now be sent to Governor Crist to be signed.

"I thank Senator Stephen Wise, Representative Jennifer Carroll, and the Florida Legislature for their deep commitment to the youth of our state," said DJJ Secretary Frank Peterman, Jr. "This bill will reduce the number of children entering the juvenile justice system and better address delinquency in our schools."

"I am glad that my colleagues in the House agree that we can't afford to ruin kids’ lives for doing a goofy thing," Senator Wise stated. "When you get into the juvenile justice system everybody thinks your sins are forgiven when you turn 18, and I assure you that doesn’t happen. It’s a blemish on your record."

"This is an important step toward keeping schools safe while keeping kids in school where they belong," said Representative Carroll. "This legislation will have a far-reaching positive effect on the lives of troubled and at-risk children."

Recent data from the Department of Juvenile Justice illustrates the vital need for this bill. More than half of the youth referred from schools are first-time offenders, and a misdemeanor was the most serious charge for 69% of school-related referrals. SB 1540 and its House companion bill redirect a large number of these children away from the juvenile justice system through diversionary alternatives. Research shows that excluding children from school increases the odds of academic failure and dropping out. Moreover, once a child or teenager is involved in the juvenile justice system the odds of that child or teenager becoming more deeply embedded in the system dramatically increase. During fiscal year 2007-08, 21,289 children or 15% of the referrals to the DJJ were school related.

"We are very happy that the Legislature realizes that it is important for students to remain in school," commented President Adora Obi Nweze of the Florida State Conference of the NAACP. "We commend them and hope that all Florida’s school districts will ensure their policies and practices reflect the spirit of this bill."

"This bill will reduce the unintended consequences that zero tolerance has played in creating direct pathways into the juvenile justice system for kids who don’t belong there. The bill gives school districts necessary discretion to focus on individualized responses to students and avoid the one-size-fits-all mandatory punishment," commented Cathy Craig-Myers of Tallahassee, Executive Director of the Florida Juvenile Justice Association, one of the many organizations supporting the bill.

Alternatives to arrest, such as teen courts and school accountability boards, divert children away from the juvenile justice system while effectively addressing the misbehaviors that could lead to or qualify as misdemeanor offenses. In counties where diversionary alternatives are used, far fewer children are referred to the juvenile justice system. For example, two of the state’s largest school districts - Miami‐Dade and Palm Beach - extensively use alternatives to arrest. These districts also have school referral rates that are much lower than the general statewide average.

SB 1540 will:

  • Define and distinguish petty acts of misconduct as opposed to offenses that pose serious threats to school safety.
     
  • Prohibit the reporting of petty acts of misconduct and certain misdemeanors to law enforcement.
     
  • Require schools that still have corporal punishment policies to review them every three years at a public meeting.

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