Amid war of words, Pinellas changes discipline policy

February 9, 2016. The Tampa Bay Times.

The Pinellas County School Board agreed Tuesday to cut the number of days a student can be suspended out of school and to stop docking absent students’ grades, even as some members fired back at critics who seek to further curb punishments that disproportionately affect the county’s black students.

Religious leaders in central Ohio call for end to gun violence

May 5, 2015. The Columbus Dispatch.

About 3,000 people of faith gathered at the Ohio Expo Center last night to propose initiatives aimed at reducing violence in Columbus, giving immigrants in the city a way to identify themselves and increasing services for Franklin County’s mentally ill.

The Nehemiah Action event was sponsored by Building Responsibility, Equality and Dignity, an interfaith coalition more commonly known as BREAD. Its membership includes 45 Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Unitarian Universalist congregations.

“What we’re talking about is the difference between people in our community living and dying. This is real,” said the Rev. Clyde Sales, senior minister at the Genessee Avenue Church of Christ on the North Side.

Brenda Minor, a member of Sales’ church, spoke about the mental-health crisis, crying as she said she lost her sister, who suffered with depression, to suicide and her mother to schizophrenia.

“On Friday, May the 8th, I wish I had my mom to call to say ‘Happy Birthday.’ On Sunday, May 10, I wish I could call my mother and sister to say Happy Mothers Day, but by putting it to a higher power, I am still standing,” Minor said. “Just like you all, just like BREAD, I will continue to rise.”

BREAD has encouraged the Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Board of Franklin County to add two additional Assertive Community Treatment teams of mental-health professionals. Last night, David Royer, the board’s chief executive officer, promised to add a third team. He also said he would present the board with a plan in December for a “clubhouse” that would support people recovering from mental illnesses.

Such facilities can be found in 36 states. Ohio has one, in Cuyahoga County.

BREAD also called for the Columbus Division of Police to adopt the Community Initiative to Reduce Violence used in 75 U.S. cities, including Dayton, Cincinnati and Toledo.

The Rev. Eric Meter, of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Clintonville, said the program seeks to pull together people and agencies in the criminal-justice system to target adult members of gangs, helping them find jobs and a new way of life. It also seeks to prosecute gun-related crimes at the federal level.

Representatives of the state Office of Criminal Justice Services and of the U.S. attorney’s office in southern Ohio attended the rally and said they would commit to supporting such a program in Columbus. BREAD members said Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien also had signaled his support and that George Speaks, Columbus’ director of public safety, had agreed to convene a meeting of stakeholders and to seek funding for the initiative.

The Rev. David Schalk, pastor of Christ the King Catholic Church on the East Side, addressed the immigrant-identification issue, noting that hundreds of U.S. cities accept the Mexican Matricula Consular identification for undocumented Mexican immigrants. He also called for a municipal ID card, saying it would help other immigrants as well as the homeless, youth from the foster system, low-income elderly residents and the recently incarcerated.

BREAD had invited the four Columbus mayoral candidates to the meeting, but only one, James Ragland, attended. He was in support of both ID initiatives.

Sixteen-year-old Salvador Mercado, who was 2 when his family moved to the United States from Mexico, told the crowd about how fearful his parents were as they drove him to school each day without a locally recognized identification card.

“People in my community want a form of ID that is accepted and recognized, that we are human beings like everybody else,” he said to cheers.

Clergy members said the BREAD gatherings give people of faith a way to put their beliefs into action.

“Nehemiah showed us that there is power in numbers,” Sales said. “Often in our society, we don’t have the power to do anything about the problems in the community. But tonight we do.”

Religious rally calls for reducing arrests of children, immigrants

March 23, 2015. The Sun Sentinel.

Nearly 3,000 people Monday night joined religious leaders in calling for Palm Beach County police officers and sheriff’s deputies to stop arresting children and jailing immigrants for minor criminal offenses.

People Engaged in Active Community Efforts, known as PEACE, is a coalition of more than two dozen Palm Beach County religious groups.

The group held its annual assembly Monday at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, attracting families, choirs, retirees and churchgoers from across the county.

Top priorities for the group this year are reducing the arrests of children for misdemeanors and convincing law enforcement agencies not to automatically jail immigrants without U.S. citizenship caught driving without a driver’s license.

Issuing more civil citations to juvenile offenders and accepting alternative forms of identification from immigrants are among the “reasonable and righteous” solutions that the group proposes, the Rev. Robert Rease told the crowd Monday night.

“Rise up and build a better Palm Beach County,” Rease, of St. John Missionary Baptist Church, told the crowd. “That’s why we are here tonight.”

The coalition is calling for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and local police to stop the “unnecessary arrests” of children for low-level crimes.

The group argues that misdemeanor offenses such as graffiti, shoplifting and playground fights should trigger punishments, but not criminal records for juvenile offenders.

So instead of arresting those under 18 years old for minor offenses, the religious leaders propose that local law enforcement issue civil citations, similar to traffic tickets.

That could put children into first-time offender programs that can require restitution while avoiding creating a criminal record.

The group also wants the courts and law enforcement agencies to allow second-time offenders to participate in those programs again, to offer a second chance for children to avoid getting a criminal record.

Even juvenile criminal records can end up having life-long consequences, according to the religious group. Misdemeanors can keep teenagers from getting college scholarships and having a juvenile criminal record can make it harder to get into the military.

“Our children should be forgiven for mistakes that they have made,” said the Rev. Darial Smith of St. John First Baptist Church. “We do not believe that they should be punished for a lifetime.”

In addition to cutting down on juvenile arrests, the religious coalition wants Sheriff Ric Bradshaw to implement the group’s proposal from last year to stop arresting immigrants living here without U.S. citizenship for driving without a license.

The sheriff could cut down on those arrests by accepting alternative forms of identification when a driver is caught driving without a license and issue a citation instead of taking the driver to jail, according to the coalition.

One alternative form of identification available is a consular identification card, which includes a local address.

Bradshaw last year agreed to consider accepting consular identification cards, but hasn’t implemented the policy yet and immigrant drivers without licenses are still getting arrested.

The risk of going to jail just for driving without a license creates fear and distrust and makes it less likely that immigrant communities feel safe cooperating with law enforcement, according to the religious coalition. Also, putting more people in jail adds to costs for taxpayers.

“We want Sheriff Bradshaw to follow through on his commitment,” the Rev. Gerald Kisner of Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church said Monday night.

Bradshaw didn’t attend Monday’s meeting, despite a public push from the group to join them. He has said that a prior commitment would keep him from attending. He also didn’t attend last year’s event.

Bradshaw has said that he is waiting for information from consular general offices before considering implementing an alternative identification policy.

Also, Bradshaw has said that the group’s proposal to reduce juvenile arrests is a countywide issue and that the Sheriff’s Office would consider it as along as other law enforcement agencies were part of the discussion.

State Attorney Dave Aronberg and Palm Beach County Public Defender Carey Haughwout attended the Monday meeting and both voiced support for pursuing more alternatives to juvenile arrests.

Police chiefs from West Palm Beach, Delray Beach, Boynton Beach, Riviera Beach and the School District also attended and agreed to consider pursuing more juvenile offender programs instead of arrests for minor crimes.

The police chiefs from West Palm Beach and Riviera Beach agreed to consider accepting alternative forms of identification from immigrants caught driving without a license. The police chiefs from Delray Beach and Boynton Beach said they could not commit to that.

People Engaged in Active Community Efforts champions issues intended to help the poor, disadvantaged and others in need. In the past, the group pushed to stop wage theft and called for county government contractors to do more hiring from economically struggling Glades communities.