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Monday, May 21, 2018
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Pinellas schools should move forward with discipline program

Students who commit minor offenses at school deserve a second chance before being scarred with an arrest record that can dramatically alter a student’s chance at success later in life.

Students involved in trespassing on school property or accused of breaking a window on campus should face discipline from the principal and other school officials rather than a deputy or police officer who might feel compelled to write a report that becomes a juvenile arrest record.

To minimize that possibility, school officials in Broward County have formed an agreement with local law enforcement agencies that is aimed at keeping students from being arrested for minor offenses, such as petty theft, disruption of school functions, trespassing and criminal mischief. Offenders are diverted to a program that gets to the root causes of what happened, and keeps the discipline within the school.

The program has drawn the attention of Pinellas school officials, who should continue moving forward with plans to implement a similar second-chance policy.

As the Tribune’s Anastasia Dawson reports, the program is not a free pass. The offenses are addressed, and the offenders are held accountable. It offers a rational way to deal with nonviolent students who make a mistake. “We’re always looking at finding another alternative beyond the arrest,” said Michael Bessette, an associate superintendent in Pinellas. “I think it would be a service to our kids, teachers, staff and community not to get kids into the criminal justice system that don’t need to be there.”

Bessette says much of the discipline in Pinellas schools today does remain within the school. And that’s a good thing. Principals often know the offenders better than law enforcement. The new policy, which has the support of Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, would make it clear that school officials should be first to confront a student accused of a nonviolent, minor infraction.

The Broward program puts the offenders into a matrix that considers grade level, the offense committed and whether a student is a repeat offender. The written policy gives schools and law enforcement a clear understanding of how to move forward after an infraction.

The presence of law enforcement on school campuses has become a fixture in recent years, leading to concerns about over-aggressive enforcement of minor infractions. The Broward model offers a common-sense approach to dealing with those infractions.

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