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.

Alternative punishments sought for students

October 20, 2015. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino and Sarasota County School Superintendent Lori White said they will work together to create alternatives to jail and school suspensions for delinquent students.

Speaking to more than a dozen church and synagogue congregations at a Sarasota United for Responsibility and Equity, or SURE meeting, DiPino and White said discipline in Sarasota County has become too heavy-handed.

ICARE: ‘People power’ promotes social change in Jacksonville

Tuesday, April 21, 2015. jacksonville.com

Ebonee Williams (left) and Ke’yanna Lamar from Frank H. Peterson Academies of Technology talk about how the Restorative Justice program has helped them stay in school and move ahead with their lives. Leaders from church congregations across Jacksonville met Monday evening for the ICARE Nehemiah Assembly at the Potter’s House off Normandy Boulevard in Jacksonville. The Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment pressed city leaders to improve issues with youth crime, education, jobs and mental health issues and highlighted successes stemming from the previous ICARE events.

Seniors Ke’yanna Lamar and Ebonee Williams, who have leadership roles in Frank H. Peterson Academies of Technology’s student court, have seen up close how restorative justice can redirect the lives of troubled teens at their Jacksonville high school.

The program calls for students who commit code-of-conduct violations to go through mediation with accountability boards of fellow students or staff. The goal is to address the cause of a student’s behavior problem through in-school and community programs, rather than taking a zero-tolerance approach with out-of-school suspensions or worse, they told an interfaith assembly Monday night.

“I am really proud of the program. It allows us to deal with issues in our school,” Ke’yanna said.

Mentoring, counseling or help with family or academic issues, combined with some method of making amends, are a more productive deterrent to youth crime than punishment, the student leaders said.

“There is something deeper going on,” Ebonee said. “We need to find the real reason, find out what is really going on.”

Restorative justice is one of the key recommendations made over the last few years by the interfaith group, the Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment, or ICARE. At the Monday night assembly, members of the nonprofit’s 38 congregations received progress reports on that and other recommendations made to the school district, city government and other agencies.

Many of them have been or soon will be implemented: restorative justice and direct instruction in some Duval schools, a day resource center for the homeless, a task force and study to spur economic development in Northwest Jacksonville through employee-owned businesses and a model to decrease mental health-care waiting lists.

“People power is present and growing,” said co-president Kent Dorsey, pastor of Riverside Avenue Christian Church. “We have taken another big step toward a fair and just Jacksonville.”

But ICARE members were encouraged to keep up the pressure to ensure continued funding and progress.

“The people of Jacksonville need to know they will be heard,” said Eugene Diamond, pastor of Abyssinia Baptist Church. “We will not be discouraged if the journey is long.”

Schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has implemented restorative justice in 87 Duval schools. The program is part of a “culture change” to use code-of-conduct violations as opportunities for teaching, rather than punishment, he said.

As a result, out-of-school suspensions have dropped from 20,000 to 8,000 in one year, he said.

There also is a community component of restorative justice — civil citations issued by law enforcement for minor, non-violent offenses by youth, rather than arrests. Neighborhood accountability boards handle the mediation process between offenders and victims and mete out community service and restitution plans.

The boards have been set up in three areas — the Northside, Westside and Beaches — and have given 150 youth ”second chances,” said ICARE member Geneva Pittman.

Each civil citation costs about $400 to process, compared to $5,000 to prosecute arrests, she said.

“This is fiscally responsible not just socially responsible,” she said.

Churches collaborate for change

April 23, 2015. South Florida Times.

They arrived by car and by the busload, members of churches, synagogues and mosques throughout Miami-Dade County. They chanted a defiant “Let Justice Ring,” when officials affirmed a commitment to seriously address a social issue presented to them; and murmured their displeasure when the answer was “no.”

With nary a seat left at the spacious New Birth Baptist church in North Miami, members of PACT (People Acting for Community Together) gathered for its Nehemiah Action Assembly. Three specific issues were on the agenda that the organization with 35 churches and two universities strong presented to officials from local police departments, the Miami-Dade County Commission, the Juvenile Assessment Center, the State Attorney’s Office and the Miami-Dade Public Schools.

This was not a typical community gathering. This assembly, as its name attests, was patterned after the biblical figure, Nehemiah, who took action after he “heard the cries of the people.”

In a handout that included the agenda items, a statement on “Engaging Power: Preparing Ourselves for Reactions from Power People” distinguishes public from personal relationships. The former, it explains, must be based on making commitments and holding each other accountable. “We are not concerned about being liked; instead, we are concerned about getting something done,” it reads.

Getting something done was the prevailing theme of the assembly.

After providing a brief background on the congregations’ motivations for joining PACT and its similarities to Nehemiah’s scriptural assembly, Father Chris Marino, from the Cathedral of St. Mary, broke it down succinctly. “There may be some tension in this room tonight,” he warned. “We are asking that our county officials answer our questions with a direct “yes” or a direct “no.”

No official was being blindsided, because “this is not the first time that these, our public officials, have been presented with these issues. We have met with them ahead of time and we have sent them letters with exactly the questions that we put before them tonight,” Marino stated.

The first official to face the mass audience was Miami Gardens Interim Police Chief Antonio Brooklen.  He replied “yes” to each of the questions posed to him regarding the city’s agreement to install resource officers at three of its parks; receiving applause followed by a resounding “Let Justice Ring.”

Officials responding to PACT’s questions regarding reducing the number of youth arrests got much of the same from the audience.  Miami-Dade police director, J.D. Patterson, was asked, “Will you continue to support the expansion of the civil citation program throughout Florida and build allies for the local and statewide level for the coming legislative session?”

After his “yes” reply, Patterson put the shoe on the other foot and asked the audience for help with two forthcoming initiatives.

“Miami-Dade police will need your support in the future for body worn video cameras and your support for our real time crime reporting system,” he said.

The first “no” response came from Arnold Montgomery, director of MDPS’ Office of Educational Equity, Access and Diversity, regarding his authority to speak for Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and his ability to approve a restorative justice pilot program, an alternative proposed to help lower the suspension rate.

Restorative justice programs allow youth who have committed minor offenses in school to face their victim with trained school professionals in an atmosphere of redemption and resolve. Similar programs have reduced the suspension rate in Duval County by 80 percent, according to PACT. Montgomery did accept PACT’s request to continue negotiations in an effort to reach an agreement.

As it relates to affordable housing, PACT was able to secure agreement from Miami-Dade Commissioners Dennis Moss and Daniella Levine-Cava to provide leadership to activate the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and to work on a plan to secure funding. Although approved in 2007, the trust has existed on paper only since it has no sustainable source of money, no one running the fund, no one raising money for it and not even an order to implement it.

Rabbi Robert Davis from Temple Beth Shalom said that the trust fund is desperately needed because, “The average renter in Miami-Dade earns $28,500 and pays over 70 percent of their income for rent.”

According to Rev. Robert Brooks of St. Peter’s Missionary Baptist, the trust fund will need at least $200 million in order to make the necessary impact, however, PACT is proposing that commissioners commit to securing $10 million annually by 2017.

“Without adequate funds, there is no housing trust fund,” Brooks said.