May 5, 2016. The Weekly Challenger.

ST. PETERSBURG — Thousands of community members from across Pinellas County gathered Monday, April 18 at Tropicana Field to ask local officials to do more to keep the youth out of the criminal justice system and to keep families in their homes.

This was the annual Nehemiah Action Assembly held by Faith and Action for Strength Together (FAST). More than 40 religious congregations came together to share stories of what plagues their community and to seek results from officials.

One such story was shared by Johnny Watson from Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. His son is on the autism spectrum, and in middle school he hugged a teacher’s aide and was arrested for assault. He was never in trouble again, but that one spot on his record has kept him from gainful employment.

“Children should not be punished year after year for mistakes they made at 12 years of age,” he said.

Organizers of FAST applauded Mayor Rick Kriseman for hiring a police chief who prioritized reducing youth arrest. Since Police Chief Anthony Holloway has been on board, 94 percent of eligible children have been given access to arrest avoidance. He also created the innovative Second Chances Program, where in its first year more than 100 children participated.

During the education portion, Pastor Henry Payne of Southside Tabernacle Baptist Church said he wonders why the district did not identify that his grandson needed special support.

“He is being raised by elderly grandparents. That’s a red flag that he comes from a troubled home,” he remarked.

Payne said instead of giving his grandson help to stay in school, the district keeps giving him out-of-school suspensions. Knowing that the child does not want to be in school, suspension is a reward.

“But each time he gets an out-of-school suspension, you are pushing him out of school and into the hands of the drug dealers, said Payne, who pleaded with School Board members to “keep him out of a life of crime and create a supervised program instead of out-of-school suspensions.”

Linda Stoller from the Unitarian Universalist of Clearwater cited statistics from the Florida Psychologist that said even one out-of-school suspension makes the child 10 more likely to drop out of school. She also relayed that Pinellas County gave 116,000 out-of-school suspensions last year.

“These suspensions don’t help children. They just send them home or out in the streets to cause trouble,” said Stoller.

Five out of seven School Board members attended the meeting. Peggy O’Shea and Terry Krassner were absent as well as Superintendent Michael Grego, who opted to attend a fundraiser at Innisbrook Golf Resort.

Board members were asked to create and implement by next school year a supervised suspension program and to put in place a policy to stop nonviolent disorderly conduct arrest in schools.

Concerns with low reading test scores were also raised.  FAST is asking for a core reading curriculum with a proven track record to be used in the 21 low-income schools.

Marilena Canezo from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Clearwater said her daughter went to Walsingham Elementary and was receiving good grades and was even praised by her teachers. But once they moved and switched to Bardmoor Elementary, she was informed that her child was two grade levels behind.

“I was shocked. I had to spend over $1,000 and countless hours with tutoring to get her up to grade level,” Canezo said. “We need to make the reading curriculum in struggling schools a priority.”

The last topic of concern was the county’s crisis hotline, 2-1-1.

After moving into a new home, Phyllis Young from Bethel Community Baptist said she received a $1,000 electric bill. She called 2-1-1 for assistance and was put on hold for two hours. Every night for a week she was on hold for two hours before she got the information she needed.

“I went back and forth with them for another week, sending documents that they needed before I was finally told that I wasn’t eligible for help,” Young said.  “By that time, the bill was delinquent and I found myself without electricity: no lights, no air conditioning, no refrigerator, no nothing. I was in trouble and 2-1-1, the number I was supposed to call for help, let me down.”

FAST asked county commissioners to come up with a way to reduce the average wait time to 90 seconds.

Since the organization was formed more than 10 years ago, FAST has ushered in improvements in a number of critical areas, such as job creation, crime reduction and affordable housing.