When, after a nationwide search, he was hired two years ago to serve as superintendent of Florida’s Broward County Public Schools, Robert Runcie began brainstorming ways to close the racial achievement gap. At the time, black students in the sixth-largest district in the country had a graduation rate of only 61 percent compared to 81 percent for white students. To find out why, Runcie, who once headed a management-consulting firm, went to the data.
“One of the first things I saw was a huge differential in minority students, black male students in particular, in terms of suspensions and arrests,” he says. Black students made up two-thirds of all suspensions during the 2011-2012 school year despite comprising only 40 percent of the student body. And while there were 15,000 serious incidents like assaults and drug possession reported that year, 85 percent of all 82,000 suspensions were for minor incidents—use of profanity, disruptions of class—and 71 percent of all 1,000-plus arrests were for misdemeanors. The last statistic, says Runcie, “was a huge red flag.”
Like most large school districts in the United States, discipline policies in Broward reflected the idea that the best way to maintain an orderly classroom is to get rid of disruptive students, an approach known as zero tolerance. Zero tolerance policies help explain why 81 percent of all suspensions in New York City Schools in the 2012-20 13 school year were for minor infractions and 70 percent of all arrests were for misdemeanors; why 67 percent of all school-based arrests in Florida in 2011-2012 were for misdemeanors; and why 97 percent of half a million suspensions and expulsions recorded in an eight-year Texas study published in 2011 were not required under state law. A 2008 survey from the American Psychological Association titled “Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in Schools?” found that “recent research indicates a negative relationship between the use of school suspension and expulsion and school-wide academic achievement.” While factors outside of school, like family income, matter most for academic success, “there’s a direct correspondence between the achievement gap and discipline,” says Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at New York University. According to a nationwide study from UCLA 24 percent of black secondary-school students were suspended at least once during the 2009-2010 school year versus 7 percent of white students. That same year, the graduation rate for black students was 66 percent compared to 83 percent for white students.
Broward announced broad changes designed to mitigate the use of harsh punishments for minor misbehavior at the beginning of this school year. While other districts have amended their discipline codes, prohibited arrests in some circumstances, and developed alternatives to suspension, Broward was able to do all these things at once with the cooperation of a group that included a member of the local NAACP, a school board member, a public defender, a local sheriff, a state prosecutor, and several others. In early November, The Miami Herald reported that suspensions were already down 40 percent and arrests were down 66 percent. Yet these changes required years of advocacy. The hard scrabble road to Broward’s success also helps explain why zero tolerance policies have persisted.
“This whole issue around arrests of students, suspensions, I was not familiar with any specific targeted strategy on that,” says Runcie of his initial days as Broward superintendent. He turned to what one stakeholder calls the Eliminating the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Committee, a local group of advocates.
The “schoolhouse to jailhouse” in the committee’s name refers to the track of suspensions and arrests that civil-rights groups like the NAACP and the Advancement Project say ends in dropout and incarceration for many minority students—the polar opposite of the academic track of AP classes that typically ends in college admission. A 2013 study of Florida students by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that a suspension in 9th grade lowered a student’s chances of graduating by 20 percent and a 2013 study of Chicago students found that an arrest raises the odds of dropout by 22 percent, even after controlling for income. A 2009 study from Northeastern University found that 6 percent of all high-school dropouts (and 23 percent of black male dropouts) aged 16-24 were institutionalized (most in prisons), compared to 1 percent of people with high-school degrees.
Marsha Ellison, president of the Fort Lauderdale chapter of the NAACP, which is in Broward County, founded the Eliminating the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Committee. After a 5 year-old girl was arrested in a different Florida county in 2005—she threw a temper tantrum in an assistant principal’s office—“we were all directed from our national group to meet with our school district, collect the data, and work through to fix this schoolhouse to jailhouse issue,” she says. Ellison began to ask for discipline data on a regular basis, but says Runcie’s predecessors would not release it, an assertion corroborated by Gordon Weekes, a public defender in Broward County, and Robin Bartleman, a school board member and former teacher in Broward. The district “thought if they hid and did not acknowledge it then the problem would go away,” says Ellison.
A cadre of reformers who admired Ellison’s determination began to meet with her on a regular basis. Bartleman was motivated by her experience in the classroom. “I remember having to expel students and literally being in tears thinking, ‘Why does this child have to be expelled for this?’” she says. Weekes says he saw “school-based arrests for little minor things like kids shooting spitballs, a kid throwing a lollipop.” After Baltimore lessened penalties for similar infractions in its discipline code and provided alternatives to suspension, like counseling, suspensions fell by 33 percent and the graduation rate increased by 15 percent in seven years.
Elijah Williams, a justice in the juvenile courts in Broward, joined the committee after he saw a presentation in Las Vegas by Steven Teske, a juvenile judge in Clayton County, Georgia. Teske had helped local law enforcement and school officials reach an agreement to send students who committed misdemeanors to counseling instead of to court. School-based referrals fell by 83 percent and the graduation rate rose by 24 percent over eight years. Williams soon had Teske on a plane to Broward to meet the committee.
Broward’s Collaborative Agreement on School Discipline was announced in early November. Instead of suspensions, students can now be referred to the PROMISE program, where they receive counseling for several days and then return to school. A host of non-violent misdemeanors no longer require an arrest, though officers can sometimes override that if they feel it is necessary (“I wanted to make sure deputies always had discretion,” says Scott Israel, Broward County’s sheriff). The school district’s Office of Minority Male Achievement reviews data to ensure that punishments for minor infractions and racial disparities are on the decline.
“There's been success with other districts working to address parts of the problem,” says Alana Greer, an attorney with the Advancement Project who consulted on the agreement. In recent years, Los Angeles and Denver have limited the range of minor behavior infractions that can be punished by a suspension. “But what Broward did that really set it apart is they put together this incredible breadth of stakeholders. They have been able to not only address one piece of it, but create a set of policies that work together to hopefully eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline in Broward.”
Broward is unusual because representatives from law enforcement, the district, and the community were able to agree on reform, and the superintendent approved it. “In dealing with the previous administration, people were afraid to look at disparate impact issues,” says Weekes. “[Runcie] was not backing away from it.” The new superintendent released the data and acknowledged that the problem had a racial dynamic. “It’s a problem all over the country,” Runcie says, “and Broward is no exception.”