Byline: TIA MITCHELL
The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and Duval County school system are planning to relaunch a controversial crime-prevention program that identifies the most disruptive students in public middle and high schools.
In 2004, the Managing At Risk Students program, also known as MARS, was suspended after the NAACP and other groups protested over what they said was racial profiling by school resource officers. At the time, Sheriff John Rutherford touted the program's success in lowering teen violence and vowed to revive it.
The new plan, unveiled this week, is called Project Safe Schools. Like MARS, school referral information will be matched with Sheriff's Office crime records. A point system will be used to identify five students at each school who have been in the most trouble each month.
Addressing a major criticism of MARS, the parents of those students would automatically be notified.
School resource officers then would meet individually with the students at least three times, and the students and their families will be referred to available social services.
Superintendent Joseph Wise said he supports the program and will urge School Board approval on Sept. 4.
Assistant Chief David Coffman, who oversees the school resource officer program for the Sheriff's Office, said the new program is an "early intervention to break the cycle of unacceptable behavior."
Michael Hallett, professor and chairman of the criminal justice department at the University of North Florida, was a critic of MARS. But he supports and helped develop Project Safe Schools.
"The proposed program is a great improvement to the MARS program, in that it emphasizes student engagement rather than just tracking discipline," Hallett said in an e-mail statement. "Parents are notified, school officials are much more involved, and officers themselves linked more directly to staff."
Hallett said the cost of not implementing the program is "grave and growing."
Two School Board members indicated they won't vote to approve Project Safe Schools unless changes are made.
Betty Burney and Brenda Priestly Jackson, the board's only black members, worry that the program may create unwarranted exposure to the criminal-justice system for students who are disruptive in school but otherwise law-abiding.
They also echoed concerns that led to the undoing of MARS: that black males will be disproportionately affected. …