Hillsborough’s Housing Crunch: Searching For Solutions

December 16, 2018. WUSF News.

Back in October, hundreds of Hillsborough County residents packed the pews of Tampa’s First Seventh Day Adventist Church.

It was an interfaith gathering of congregations, all members of the Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality (HOPE). People chatted and a choir led the group in singing hymns, but before too long, they got down to business.

Community group FAST quizzes Pinellas school leader about student arrests

March 10, 2014. Tampa Bay Times.

CLEARWATER — Over the pulpit hung Jesus on a cross. Mike Grego, on Monday evening, was invited to sit on a wooden chair. The church leaders told him not to be nervous. There would be no surprises, they told the superintendent of Pinellas County Schools.

The reassurance was not unwarranted. Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST, had brought 830 people from 43 congregations together at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church to ask Grego to step up efforts to curb arrests in schools.

In 2011-12, according to the most recent state report, there were more school-related arrests in Pinellas County — 846 — than in Miami-Dade — 552 — even though Miami-Dade’s enrollment is triple that of Pinellas.

The state singled out Pinellas, Orange, Volusia and Polk as large counties with high rates of school arrests per student population; Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando’s arrest rates were deemed low or average.

Almost 70 percent of the school arrests in Pinellas were for misdemeanors.

“Using this as a first response only gets them an arrest record that keeps them from getting jobs for the rest of their lives,” said Father John Tapp, co-founder of FAST.

Grego and his staff have recognized and taken steps to address the problem in recent months. Identifying that about 20 percent of arrests are for disruption, the district drafted a collaborative agreement with local law enforcement agencies to seek lesser options before clicking handcuffs onto children.

Comparing January 2013 with this past January, Grego said school arrests were down 52 percent.

But members of the community said they were concerned that Pinellas was doing too little. School officials had been studying a “discipline matrix” from Broward County that listed dozens of offenses and explicitly designated the punishment for everything from skipping class to arson. FAST wanted to know why Pinellas hadn’t done the same.

And so on Monday evening, Grego found himself sitting on a chair in a pulpit, looking small next to the people allowed to stand beside him. The woman to his left wouldn’t let him hold his own microphone.

Furthermore, Father Len Piotrowski had prepared the crowd for Grego with an eight-minute speech billed on the agenda as “Prepare for tension.” He talked of private life and public life, how you want your friends to like you, but when your friends are public officials, you have to challenge them.

“Moses wasn’t afraid to speak up, even though it made Pharaoh angry and created some tension,” Piotrowski said.

Now it was Father John Hiers’ turn. “Thank you for your courage in coming here this evening,” he said. The rules were simple, Hiers told the superintendent, who now stood up. He would ask his question. Grego could say nothing but “yes” or “no.”

The crowd was instructed to greet an answer of “yes” with applause. Members would respond to a “no” answer with silence.

“Will you include community groups including FAST and NAACP in conversations to create this list of offenses that do not lead to arrests and lead to alternative repercussions?” Hiers asked.

Grego, hands clasped in front as if in prayer, said, “Yes, absolutely, yes.”

The room exploded. Laughter, whooping, cheers. In closing, Grego said, “I want to thank each and every one of you for believing in this community.”

And in the end, they said amen.

Interfaith coalition discusses progress and goals at Jacksonville rally

March 5, 2014. Jacksonville.com

A simple message was repeated many times Tuesday night at Abyssinia Baptist Church by all in attendance.

“Because when we work together, great things happen,” about 540 people spoke in unison.

The Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation and Empowerment or ICARE rallied for change and improvement for Jacksonville’s homeless, unemployed, mentally ill and children.

Leaders of the organization reported the progress that has been made on the group’s goals in an hour-long presentation.

First up was Maple Jones of St. Paul American Methodist Episcopal. She talked about the Jacksonville Day Resource Center. The coalition successfully lobbied to have the center funded last year for the city’s homeless.

Located on West Union Street, the facility currently serves 150 people on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Jones said. She said it has Internet access, showers and a washer and dryer.

Funding will dry up at the end of September, but ICARE will work to secure additional resources, she said.

Next, ICARE co-president the Rev. Kent Dorsey of Riverside Avenue Christian spoke on the unemployment issues in Northwest Jacksonville.

According to ICARE, Northwest Jacksonville has an unemployment rate that is about 100 percent higher than the rest of the city.

Dorsey talked about a delegation he was a part of that went to Cleveland where they toured businesses that were started in areas with similar circumstances to the Northwest Jacksonville quadrant.

ICARE’s goal for the next year will be to launch at least one employee-owned business in that part of town.

Queen Williams of St. Paul American Episcopal spoke about a suicide last week after the person was unable to find help for mental-health issues.

“He fell into a dark world of hopelessness,” she said.

Williams said mental-health illnesses are life-and-death issues.

“Our research has led us to the conclusion that the greatest need for mental-health access is particularly among the uninsured and the indigent population in our city,” Williams said.

She said ICARE’s goal is to reduce the number of people on waiting lists for clinical mental-health care. ICARE’s mental-health committee will study what has worked in other areas of the state.

Katherine Robinson of Greater Payne American Methodist Episcopal discussed education. She said 58,000 Duval County students are reading below grade level. An information packet the coalition distributed cited a 2012 Florida Department of Education as the source for the number.

Natishia Stevens of Historic Mount Zion American Methodist Episcopal tackled youth crime. The issue the coalition focused on was civil citations. They said 69 percent of youth in Duval County who are eligible for a civil citation are instead arrested. The organization wants that number to be 38 percent by April 2015.

The next major ICARE event will be April 7 at 6:30 p.m. at the Potter’s House, 5119 Normandy Blvd.

Group calls JCPS zero tolerance policy “school-to-prison pipeline”

February 12, 2014. WLKY News.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. —The board of education calls it a “zero tolerance policy,” but the Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together or “CLOUT” calls it “the school-to-prison pipeline.”

CLOUT maintains that the zero tolerance policy makes schools more dangerous, but JCPS says they’re on the right track and making progress.

JCPS says it has an intervention system and suspensions have actually gone down from 16,000 to 13,000 over the past three years.

But CLOUT says the numbers are still way too high, adding the district handed out more than 100 times as many suspensions as Boston last year.

Clout says JCPS isn’t acting with urgency to solve the problem and this could land the district in hot water with the federal government, if something doesn’t change.

“The federal government is taking note of this and threatening districts like JCPS and saying you might be the target of a federal civil rights investigation if you don’t get this under control,” said CLOUT board member Christopher Kolb.

In a statement to WLKY news, JCPS said in part, over the past several months, “We have met with members of CLOUT numerous times about their concerns. JCPS has selected a behavior intervention system that is rooted in research based practices and principles proven to improve school cultures,” said a JCPS spokesperson.

CLOUT believes the district needs to implement a system aimed at restoring relationships between students, parents and administrators.