The rate of Flagler County kids arrested on school property for school-related crimes — calculated in arrests per 1,000 enrolled — is more than four times higher than Miami-Dade County’s or Broward County’s. It’s more than twice the rate in St. Johns County and almost twice the state average, and a disproportionate number of the children arrested at school — 37% last year — have been black. Black students are about 16% of the county’s school population.
Flagler is not alone in having high arrest rates in schools. A total of 11 Florida counties — Volusia, Putnam, Suwannee, Madison, Polk, Hendry, Alachua, Desoto, Jefferson, Highland and Calhoun — had school arrest rates higher than Flagler’s rate of 12.9 arrests per 1,000 students, based on numbers compiled from last year’s school arrest data by the Department of Juvenile Justice. Volusia had 19.3 arrests per 1,000. Putnam had 24.2 per 1,000.
Still, the rates in the rest of the state’s 67 counties, including in major metropolitan areas with higher overall crime, are lower than Flagler’s. Miami-Dade and Broward counties both had arrest rates of about three students per 1,000. The state average is seven.
Experts with the Department of Juvenile Justice said there is no single, tidy answer for the disparity in school arrest rates between the counties, or between the rates of black and white students arrested.
There is no simple fix, either.
“I can’t tell you how many conferences I’ve been to, looking for that silver bullet,” said DJJ Disproportionate Minority Contact Coordinator Josh Kuch. “In terms of having some kind of broad-based approach to reducing disparities, there’s not that much out there.”
But the state is trying. Statewide, school arrests are at their lowest in 10 years, and the DJJ is creating a new training program for school police that addresses officer communication with minority students and encourages officers to issue eligible students civil citations instead of arresting them.
That program could be implemented in the coming school year.
The options: teen court and civil citations
Flagler County’s numbers are high in comparison with other counties, but have been improving, said Cheryl Massaro, a state adviser for the Department of Juvenile Justice and a member of the Circuit 7 DJJ Council and the Flagler County DJJ Council.
“Flagler, you’d think, would have much lower numbers than they do,” she said. “And they should, and I don’t know what the problem is except more programs have to be developed and more education has to be implemented so that behavior is improved and the reaction is different” when students come into contact with police, she said.
Still, she said, civil citations — which allow students accused of minor crimes to avoid developing an arrest record — “have been really important in impacting and dropping the number of school arrests.”
The program has only been used heavily in Flagler County over the past two or three years, said Flagler Schools Student Services Director Katrina Townsend.
Now, she said, “If a student is eligible for a civil citation, they’re offered that.”
The program attempts to treat the root of the problem, Townsend said. “If they discover that the student has a drug issue, then they’d be referred to a drug program. If the reason they’re damaging property is because they have anger concerns, then they might refer them to therapeutic intervention,” she said.
That approach works, said DJJ Research and Data Integrity Director Mark Greenwald.
“The overwhelming majority of juveniles that go through that process do well,” he said. “Right now they have a 5% recidivism rate … over 12 months. It’s hands-down the most effective process we have.”
But civil citations can’t be offered to everybody.
“It has to be a misdemeanor crime, it can’t be a crime of violence, and the child has to agree to participate in the civil citation process, and so do their parents,” said Flagler County Sheriff’s Office Neighborhood Services Division Commander Stephen Cole, who oversees Flagler County’s school resource officers. “And it’s for a first-time offense only,” he added.
The program also requires students to admit their guilt. Some don’t want to do that, or have parents who don’t want them to do that. And if a kid made a “silly mistake” when they were 12 or 13 years old and went through the program, Cole said, they would then be ineligible to go through it again, even years later.
Similar restrictions apply to teen court, which also requires community service and leads to a student’s record being expunged, but can only be used for first-time offenders.
Black kids arrested more
Black children are more likely than white students to be arrested in Florida schools and in Flagler County schools. Statewide last year, black students represented 53% of school-related arrests, while white students represented 32% of school-related arrests; Hispanic students represented 15%, according to DJJ data.
In Flagler County, black students represented 37% of the county’s 91 school-related arrests, white students represented 54%, and Hispanic students represented 8%.
Greenwald and Kuch said proportionality can be hard to control: There’s no single cause and no single solution.
Cole said the Flagler disparity has nothing to do with how deputies are responding to reported crimes: They follow the protocol available for the crime they’re dealing with, he said. “I don’t believe that, when it comes to those numbers, that race is a factor,” he said. “The crime is reported to us, and we respond appropriately.”
The DJJ created an entire office — Kuch’s — to address the problem of disproportionate police contact with minorities, but its officials have no direct say in who gets arrested and no way to know what role officer bias might play in the disparate numbers.
But DJJ officials can, and do, make recommendations to the courts in individual cases, and the department has sought to ensure that unintended racial bias can’t creep into those recommendations.
“What we can do is make sure that the decisions we make are race and gender neutral … so that we’re not recommending that youth of color are being recommended harsher punishments than equally situated white youths,” Greenwald said.
To do that, the DJJ has created a rubric officials use to determine what recommendation to make. It takes into account factors like a student’s past behavior; evidence of anti-social attitudes; anti-social peers; personality issues like impulsivity, low self-control and risk-taking; a history of illegal behavior; problems at work or school; family circumstances and how a student spends their time outside of school hours; and whether the student has a substance abuse problem.
Then the department does validation studies to see if its process is working, Greenwald said.
“If we have a group of white youths that look identical to black youths, did those youths get outcomes that are similar to the black youths? And if they didn’t, then we know that there might be some bias there, and we need to tweak the system,” he said. “There is bias in the (criminal justice) system, or there is an overrepresentation, but we’re limiting the extent to which we’re a part of that bias.”
But decreasing the racial disparity overall will require more research and more work.
“We haven’t come across anything yet, anecdotally or otherwise, that’s really having a profound affect,” he said. “That’s not just Florida. That’s nationwide.”
Why the high numbers?
Flagler’s numbers — a school arrest rate more than four times higher than Miami-Dade County’s, for instance — may seem jarring, but there are reasons for the disparity, Townsend said.
“The theory is that in the larger counties, they have a greater variety of programs in general, so that when they’re having concerns with students, they have ways to place them,” she said. “So they have a wider scope of programs than we do.”
That plays out statewide, Greenwald said, and “smaller school districts, on average, report higher arrest rates” because they tend to have fewer diversion programs available and less intensive specialized training for law enforcement officers that interact with children.
School police in Miami-Dade, for instance, “have very strict policies as to how they respond to delinquency.” Greenwald said. “If they’re going to arrest, there’s a process they have to go through to justify why they’re going to arrest versus using one of those alternatives. ... All of the areas that have consistently low arrest rates, they’ve been consistently low because they’re using those alternatives, that early intervention.”
New police training
The data compiled by Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice gives the state the information it needs to devise ways to lower its school arrest rate and address the gap, Massaro said.
“Florida has the deeper data on this issue than any other state in the U.S., and that’s huge,” she said. “We can take that data and address the problems, and create programs to affect positive change.”
Massaro said the final draft of a new voluntary training program for school resource officers, which addresses officer interaction with minority children and the use of diversion programs that don’t involve arrest, is slated to begin beta testing as soon as this May.
“We’re trying to get more training for our law enforcement officers to lower the (racial) disproportionality,” she said. “We have seen the first draft of the curriculum, and … we’re hoping to implement it within the next half year.”
The curriculum would be presented to the Florida Sheriffs Association and other law enforcement associations, she said, and comes just as the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has tied its release of grant money to agencies’ ability to demonstrate attempts to lower disproportionate minority contact.
Kuch said the program is tailored to Florida, “taking into account our demographics, our data, and using our alternatives to arrest in the model.”
When it comes to the reasons for disparities between districts’ arrests rates and between the rates of black and white students arrested, Massaro said, “Everybody is trying to figure this out. Nobody has the solution. Nobody has the answer yet. But I think we’re all making a giant leap to try to make things better.”
BOX: School arrests per 1,000 students
Suwannee: 31 (first in the state of Florida)
Putnam: 24 (second)
Volusia: 19 (sixth)
Flagler: 13 (12th)
St. Johns: 5 (54th)
Palm Beach: 4 (56th)
Broward: 3 (60th)
Miami-Dade: 3 (64th)