A decade ago, too many Gainesville juveniles found themselves in the back of a police car.
In 2007, more than 1,000 children were arrested on and off school campuses in the city, according to statistics kept by the Gainesville Police Department.
Back then, students already on court-ordered probation and subsequently suspended from school risked being arrested by police for violating a probation condition: being in school. Police were also regularly called during school hours to take away a child accused of a misdemeanor offense.
A few years ago, however, police and school officials and community group leaders decided that it was wrong to punish children so severely for nonviolent activity. New policies were enacted, and afterschool and mentorship programs emerged to steer students toward positive activities.
As of Dec. 4, GPD had arrested 215 juveniles this year – or about 80 percent less than in 2007.
“We are really at an all-time low,” said William Halvosa, the police department’s disproportionate minority contact coordinator.
Veita Jackson-Carter, director of the System of Care program for Alachua County Public Schools, said the decrease in arrests is due to collaborative efforts between law enforcement, the district and the Florida Department of Children and Families. School personnel are receiving more training for crisis intervention and sensitive situations, Jackson-Carter said.
“It’s taken all of us to sit down and really look at where we are and how we are going to move forward to come up with the best resolutions for kids,” she said.
In 2011-12, GPD made 164 arrests at Alachua County schools. This year, its officers took only three children into custody on school grounds, Halvosa said.
GPD was also averaging about 50 arrests a year of students who were on probation and then got suspended from school, but in the past three years there have been zero such arrests, he said.
In addition, GPD now waits to act on an order to take a child into custody until school is over, Halvosa said. Its officers will not interrupt school and make the arrest on campus.
A primary policy change is that the department wants schools to act on their own code of conduct to handle discipline issues – and not just call for police to come and handle them.
“It is not GPD’s job to show up at school to put a cell phone away and arrest the child and be the disciplinarian,” Halvosa said.
To that end, GPD is also referring more cases to teen court instead of the state attorney’s office. Students may have to write a letter of apology to their parents, complete an anger management course or serve community service – but they avoid a criminal record.
Over the past few years, the department has created programs aimed at helping children. For example, one puts 10 to 12 at-risk children with officers once a month for a four-hour discussion, followed by a dinner, at which the two sides strive to better understand each other, Halvosa said.
“What we were starting seeing was some cops weren’t prepared to understand and observe some of these traditions in these neighbors,” he said.
Jackson-Carter said she believes the reduction in juvenile arrests also has to do with staff being better prepared to deal with students who are troubled or have made poor choices.
“People are a lot more educated about children and their needs,” she said. “A child could be in a crisis, and because we are now aware of what to look for in terms of mental health or behavioral issues, we can try to find the issues and resolve them.”
Community mentorship programs also deserve credit for fewer juvenile arrests, officials said.
Jerod Sheppard said he knows what it is like as a youth growing up in a bad environment, and he didn’t want anyone else to go through that type of childhood alone.
Sheppard, 24, afterschool director at Sun Country Sports in Gainesville, founded Boys 2 Men, a program that supports children through activities such as sports training, field trips and seminars.
When a lot of them go home, they see drugs, fighting and family members going to jail, he said.
“That’s all they know outside of school,” he said. “That is a real major key why these students are at a bigger risk of going to jail because they just follow that same pipeline.”
Boys 2 Men does not have a building, but Sheppard said he goes to different schools around Alachua County and also does school pick-ups for the field activities.
Reichert House Youth Academy is another program that works to decrease juvenile incarceration. The program picks children up from almost 31 schools four days a week for tutoring, counseling, recreation and a full course meal before taking them home each night.
“I can say without the vehicle of Reichert House, the probability of these kids being on the streets would increase tremendously,” its executive director, Jon Alexander, said. “I can just imagine those 130 students out on the streets. We would have a major problem.”