Tuesday, April 24, 2007
By JOSH POLTILOVE
The Tampa Tribune
Published: Apr 23, 2007
TAMPA - Seventh-grader A.J. Williams sat in Franklin Middle School's lunchroom, laughing and joking with friends. He was glad to be free with no criminal record.
Williams, 14, got into a fight outside Franklin early this school year with someone he said bullied him. A school resource officer could have arrested him for battery, but the officer instead took advantage of a new option: offering a civil citation and keeping Williams out of the court system.
Williams signed a form accepting responsibility and completed 10 hours of community service by picking up trash and washing dishes at a community park. He hasn't gotten into a fight since and has learned his lesson, said his mother, Jacqueline Valdez.
"This is a good program to give the kids a chance to get themselves together before they get into real trouble," Valdez said. "Now he knows that he's got to go and tell someone he's being bullied and not fight."
Hillsborough County's school district helped create the civil citation program in August to prevent students from receiving criminal records for misdemeanor crimes on school property. The program, used in all the district's middle and high schools, has been successful for students and the judicial system, school district and state attorney's office employees say.
Here's how it works:
When an infraction occurs, a school resource officer decides whether to arrest the student or issue a citation based on circumstances of the infraction. If a citation will be issued, the officer meets with the parent and the student, who would acknowledge responsibility for his act and agree to the citation's terms.
Students can receive no more than two citations from sixth through 12th grade and are not eligible for the program if they have a prior felony arrest.
They still would face school discipline, such as possible suspensions, for their actions. Williams was suspended, Franklin Middle Principal Joe Brown said.
Daily Bookings Have Decreased
From Aug. 3 through April 12, 397 citations were issued within the district for crimes such as petty theft, minor acts of vandalism and fighting.
About half those students already have successfully completed the program, said Elvin Martinez Jr., community relations administrator for the state attorney's office.
About 12 did not initially complete their community service hours, with most later complying after being sent to second chance court. Herbert Bauman, the administrative judge for the juvenile division of the 13th Judicial Circuit, holds a hearing to see whether the students would prefer completing community service or potentially face charges in court.
Since the program began, the county's juvenile assessment center has seen a decrease in daily bookings from about 50 to about 40, Martinez said.
No official studies have been completed on recidivism rates, Martinez said, but school resource officers aren't reporting that children who have been through the program are continuing to cause disruptions at school.
"The Department of Juvenile Justice fully supports the use of the civil citation program throughout the state of Florida," department spokeswoman Kim Griffin said. "We believe that this program is a tremendously effective tool for law enforcement to use for youths who are first-time offenders and who have committed nonviolent misdemeanor delinquent acts."
Hillsborough County's program was created after a report last year from the state Department of Juvenile Justice. Between July 1, 2004, and June 30, 2005, Hillsborough's school district ranked first in Florida with 2,245 student referrals to the agency.
Issuing a citation is not letting students off the hook, said Dave Friedberg, Hillsborough's school security chief. "It is not a slap on the wrist," he said. "It's not that we're going to look the other way. There are swift and immediate consequences for inappropriate behavior."
There is no requirement to issue the citations. Some school resource officers have done so more than others, but only time will tell how popular the new program will become for all the county's schools, Martinez said.
Friedberg said it is possible that some resource officers have decided not to arrest students or issue citations.
Students Learn Valuable Lesson
Franklin Middle in Tampa has been particularly active, issuing more than 50 citations since the program's inception. School resource officer Lexxie Myrick said she believes it will change students' lives, teaching them a lesson while keeping them out of the judicial system.
Myrick said there are some people who can't change, whether they get civil citations or are arrested. But she said most of those issued citations at Franklin learn a valuable lesson.
"The first day they come out of doing community service, they say, 'I'm not doing this again. I don't want to be here,'" Myrick said.
The best part of the program is that it won't stigmatize students for life, giving them a criminal record at an early age, Brown said. The program keeps students in school and out of court.
It also eases issues with an already overcrowded judicial system, Tampa police Cpl. Scott Buchanan said. Children previously waited several weeks to head before a judge.
"The juvenile criminal justice system is so overwhelmed right now that you really can't spend enough time on serious offenses like rape, robbery, murders," Buchanan said. "It's so inundated with kids getting in a fight at school."
"I'm glad they gave me community service instead of me going to jail," A.J. Williams said. "I'm not gonna get into any more fights."
Photographer Cliff McBride contributed to this report. Reporter Josh Poltilove can be reached at (850) 222-8382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.