The clients and cases that flowed out of Broward’s classrooms and into the public defender’s juvenile division used to make Gordon Weekes Jr. shake his head.
Weekes and his colleagues found themselves defending teenagers arrested for trespassing because they had been suspended and returned to campus after school, and kids jailed for “disruption of a school function” because they cursed a teacher.
“When a child would take a spitball and spit it across the classroom, they’d criminalize that and call it battery,” said Weekes, Broward’s chief assistant public defender.
Until recently, under hard-line policies that left little room for judgment calls, thousands of students were sent directly from South Florida schools to jail each year. Most were arrested for nonviolent misdemeanor offenses, and often they were black or Hispanic students.
But recently, Miami-Dade and Broward counties have done an about-face, cutting the number of arrests in half, reducing the number of suspensions by a nearly equal rate, and replacing tough love with counseling and mentorship.