Over the past three years, Alachua County has reduced the number of student arrests in county schools from 100 four years ago to only 26 in the 2015-16 school year.
The drop comes as the county has been combating a problem known as “disproportionate minority contact” — or DMC — between law enforcement and minority children, both in schools and in the community.
DMC refers to there being more minority youth in the juvenile justice system than white youth, and the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office blames the problem on over-policing in neighborhoods and schools.
To improve DMC, the sheriff’s launched an initiative in 2014 known as RED, which stands for racial and ethnic disparity, said Sgt. Paul Pardue, the RED coordinator for the sheriff’s office. (The initiative is highlighted in the above video from the sheriff’s office.)
Soon, the sheriff’s office will create a squad of deputies whose purpose is to further RED efforts, Pardue said.
“We need to take the right stance in being that guardian — not the warrior, but the guardian,” he said.
The goal is to build stronger, more trusting relationships between law enforcement and students. It includes training law enforcement to revise their policies on school children, especially when it comes to minor infractions.
For example, in Alachua County, being late for school was once a violation of probation, but in recent years, the sheriff’s office has stopped considering tardiness as such a violation.
Since about August, the number of arrests for both African-American and white children has dropped by 34 percent, Pardue said.
Over the same period, the number of teen court referrals — which is an alternative to arrest — went up, he said.
“We want to hold kids accountable and teach them something, but they don’t need an arrest record,” Pardue said.
While minority policing in the schools has been a problem, Pardue said, it also has been one in minority communities as a whole.
“In our more impoverished, underserved neighborhoods, it is typically African-American, and along with poverty comes a lot of high-crime areas,” he said. “When we go in there and work those areas, we’re going in for the major crimes, like robbery and burglaries. … Unfortunately, what happens is when those large crimes aren’t going on, we begin to over-police for the minor stuff.”
Pardue is one of the many members of law enforcement nationwide who have been sent to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. for RED training.
Meanwhile, to raise awareness of disproportionate minority contact locally, the sheriff’s office has partnered with the school board, the Gainesville Police Department, and the Gainesville organizations Southwest Advocacy Group and River Phoenix Center for PeaceBuilding.
The River Phoenix Center holds five-hour events called dialogues at different locations around the county that are meant to provide friendlier interactions between police and students, said Jeffrey Weisberg, executive director for the River Phoenix Center.
The events “bring cops and kids together to breakdown some stereotypes and learn some de-escalation and train the officers in brain adolescent development,” he said, “so that when they engage with these young people, they really consider what might be driving that behavior to ultimately have a different outcome.”
The Southwest Advocacy Resource Center also hosts events for youth and officers to interact.
The two even end up sometimes giving one another high fives, said Patty Carroll, community and government relations manager for the Partnership for Strong Families, the parent organization of the Southwest Advocacy Resource Center.
“They get to know the deputies and officers on a personal level, so there’s always dialogue going on, high fives and smiles,” she said. “And it’s a really positive relationship that’s built there.”