Children in Central Florida are more likely to leave school in handcuffs than students in other parts of the state. That's because law-enforcement officials and educators here have been slow to adopt alternatives to stem the schools-to-jail pipeline, state data show.
Florida school districts such as Miami-Dade arrest fewer students because their police frequently use a less punitive — and less expensive — arrest alternative called civil citations. At the same time, their schools frequently refer students to a network of community support.
Nearly all public middle and high schools in Central Florida, and some elementary schools, have a law-enforcement officer assigned to their campuses as part of an effort to improve school safety. And, increasingly, schools are turning to police to handle misbehavior that guidance counselors and psychologists don't have time to address, experts say.
"Officers often end up arresting the children they are there to protect," said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of The Advancement Project, a civil-rights group that has worked for years to reduce the number of students arrested at school. Her group and others have called instead for increased counseling and mental-health services in schools.
Although police are nearly universal at secondary schools, not all of those campuses have "SAFE counselors," who help students deal with social and emotional problems. Many guidance counselors are too busy with other requirements, such as career and college counseling, to focus on heading off student behavioral issues. Psychologists and social workers often share schools.
Wansley Walters ran Miami-Dade's highly regarded Juvenile Services Department before becoming secretary of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
"An arrest is not the answer to every behavior problem," she said.
Gov. Rick Scott has proposed increasing spending on the state's juvenile-diversion-and-prevention programs by $6.3 million to a total of $67 million.
Morris Copeland, who runs the Miami-Dade department now, attributed the low number of arrests in Miami-Dade schools to the use of civil citations and an extensive network of social services that students can access without having been arrested or cited. That includes help for mental health, substance abuse, life-skills training and more.
In 2011-12, 1,901 Miami-Dade students were issued citations for offenses ranging from petty theft to trespassing and resisting arrest. Orange and Orlando officers issued eight during that same time, according to Department of Juvenile Justice records.
And in Palm Beach County, the Department of Juvenile Justice is directly intervening in one school with high arrest numbers. A state staffer is stationed on the campus of Palm Beach Lakes Community High School to help the school and police deal with student bad behavior before turning to arrests.
Orange's 1,048 arrests in school last year made the county's arrest rate more than three times as high as in Miami.
Other Central Florida counties have the same problem. The rate of school-related arrests in Volusia and Polk counties was more than double the state average in 2011-12, above average in Orange, Osceola and Lake counties, and average in Seminole.
For first-time, misdemeanor offenders in cases that do not involve violence, weapons, drugs or sexual crimes, Florida's civil-citation process serves up a one-time "get out of jail free" card.
The citation is a written warning — though with real consequences. If a student doesn't follow through with a required punishment, which can include community service, writing an apology letter and completing mental-health counseling, his or her case is referred to the court system. About 7 percent of students who get civil citations get in trouble again in 12 months, versus 17 percent of students on probation, according to the state Department of Juvenile Justice.
In addition to improving outcomes for young people, civil citations also save taxpayers money — it costs $386 for a civil citation versus about $5,000 for an arrest, according to the department.
The department has set a goal of increasing the use of civil citations by 10 percent in 2012-13. Last year, they were used in 25 percent of eligible cases.
One Orange County school, Evans High, has been forging its own path toward reduced arrests.
"They need to be in school, not sitting at the Juvenile Assessment Center," said Lt. Ken Wynne, who oversees Orange County's school-based sheriff's deputies, including those at Evans. "Unless it's a major felony, it's the last resort."
Wynne credits the drop in arrests to a close relationship between deputies and the school administration, as well as the sense of order on campus under a new principal. The school is also home to the new Evans Community School, which offers in-school and after-school programs, including health services, counseling, mentoring, substance-abuse counseling and a food pantry to students and adults in the surrounding Pine Hills neighborhood. It opened this past fall.
Both deputies based at Evans are experienced at working in schools and mentor students personally. They volunteer as assistant track coaches and trainers.
And the deputies, Willie Britton and Kevin Curry, use civil citations.
"It's good to have an alternative," Britton said. "You try to give them a break. You don't want to give a mark against them for life."
But some national groups say police are being used too quickly by schools.
Jonathan Brice, who coordinates support services for Baltimore City Public Schools, said schools should turn to police only as a safety measure after creating positive school cultures; eliminating zero-tolerance policies that can lead to arrests; and adding more counselors, psychologists and social workers to schools.
When police are on campus, arrests for minor offenses rise, found Matthew Theriot, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee who has studied the issue.
He compared arrests between schools with full-time officers and those without. There was an "exponential jump" in disorderly conduct arrests in schools with SROs, even when he adjusted for school size and poverty. Conversely, arrests for offenses such as assault and weapons charges dropped when the officers were present, showing a deterrent effect.
The police presence has become entrenched in schools and enjoys wide support from parents, teachers and administrators.
Mike Blasewitz, a former principal who oversees high schools for Seminole County, said school officers promote "good will with the teenagers" and help stop problems from escalating.
Blasewitz said he has seen school officers handcuff a student whose behavior warranted an arrest, then "take them off and counsel a kid for an hour. I don't think a street officer is going to do that."
And 60 percent of Florida teachers and administrators consider law-enforcement referrals an effective way of addressing student misbehavior, according to a September survey by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center.
That view is part of the issue. Deputies and national experts say teachers and administrators faced with discipline problems can be too quick to call in the police. And the threat is real.
"I know our students understand the resource officers are a resource," said Principal Jenny Gibson-Linkh. "But it is a deterrent from making a wrong decision."
When police turn to their arrest powers, the effects can dog students for the rest of their lives, including problems getting a job and getting into college.
"For students arrested for disorderly conduct, that's a horrible outcome," said Theriot, the Tennessee professor.
In Central Florida, a move toward more civil citations will take time.
Although Orange deputies are encouraged to use them, "it's basically their call" on first-time, minor offenses, said Sgt. Lee Vayn Oliver, who oversees deputies at high schools in the western part of Orange County.
A major stumbling block in Central Florida has been paperwork. Arrests and civil citations required the same amount of paperwork and time.
This fall, the process was streamlined, and officers were retrained on how to use citations. New, shorter forms went into deputies' hands around the beginning of December.
Despite having fewer school days in December, the number of citations issued jumped that month, said Sgt. Steve Reed, who oversees school deputies in the eastern part of the county.
The role of police on campus has become an even more important issue as Orange schools have expanded presence of deputies in the elementary schools after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in December.
"We can't react to a tragedy with a narrow response like more police without additional problems," said Brice, the Baltimore schools official.