By Jarleene Almenas, Ormond Beach Observer
‘This is a systemic problem here in Volusia County,’ said FAITH’s co-chair.
When Barbara Cochran’s son was 7 years old, he was arrested for one felony and two misdemeanors.
The crime? Entering Burns Science and Technology Charter School in Oak Hill through an open door, riding his bike with his 10-year-old cousin down the halls, and making a mess. He was charged with burglary, trespassing and criminal mischief.
“What they did was wrong, but I don’t believe it was criminal, and I don’t think they believed it to be criminal,” said Cochran to a crowd of vehicles at the FAITH Action Assembly on Monday, March 22. “They make a mess like that in their bedrooms.”
Cochran found out her son, who was 3-feet-8-inches tall at the time, was going to be arrested when law enforcement showed up at her door, a block away from the school. Her son was placed in the back of a police car and questioned without a parent present for three hours before being released.
FAITH, which stands for Fighting Against Injustice Toward Harmony, is a nonprofit coalition of religious congregations, and every year, its clergy and members hold an action assembly to call upon local elected officials to make public commitments on issues including affordable housing and restorative practices for the youth in the community.
One of those practices is the issuance of civil citations in lieu of arresting minors on first-time nonviolent charges.
Pedro Dash, co-chair of FAITH, said Cochran’s son, who was issued a $300 fine and mandated to spend time cleaning up the school, could have faced the same circumstances had he been issued a civil citation instead.
“This is a systemic problem here in Volusia County,” Dash said. “…And although that story didn’t happen yesterday, it is important to hear how an arrest, one arrest, can negatively affect a child.”
Tension with the sheriff
At the start of the assembly, Rev. Wendell Webster of the Mount Zion AME church, said that FAITH was here, not to make enemies, but in the same vein, they also weren’t here to make friends.
“We are here because we are called to do justice, not just when it is easy, but always,” Webster said. “And to do justice, we need each other. We are black, brown, white, republican, democrat, rich, poor Christian, Muslim, Sikh and unitarian. Despite our differences, we are united in our call for justice in our community.”
In the days leading up to the assembly, tensions sparked between FAITH and Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood, who posted on his Facebook page on March 14 that he was cutting ties with the coalition after Chris Hoffmann, pastor of Our Lady of the Lakes in Deltona, posted on his church’s bulletin on March 7 that the civil citation usage by VCSO was 23%.
According to a statement released by FAITH on its Facebook page, this data was taken directly from the Florida Juvenile Justice Department website. In 2017, Chitwood publicly committed at FAITH’s assembly to achieve an 80% civil citation usage.
Chitwood released three pages of data on Facebook on March 11, showing every VCSO case involving a juvenile in 2020. He reported that VCSO had 111 cases of this nature, 27 of which were domestic violence arrests, a crime for which VCSO doesn’t issue civil citations. Of the remaining 84 cases, Chitwood said 69 juveniles received civil citations, a usage rate of about 82%.
“F.A.I.T.H. leaders have known for years that the stats they were using to criticize us were wrong,” Chitwood wrote on Facebook on March 17. “The rats are scurrying for cover now because we’ve finally had enough. Apologizing is not in their vocabulary, and to admit they knew their numbers were flawed would be to admit their organization is a fraud.”
In response to that statement, FAITH said on Facebook that members met with Chitwood on Feb. 9 to discuss the latest data from DJJ, and that at the time, Chitwood “offered no information or explanation that disputed the DJJ data. In that meeting we mutually agreed that the focus should be on giving civil citations to all eligible children with the exception of those involved in domestic disputes.”
FAITH stated that if the data on the DJJ website was inaccurate — as confirmed by Chitwood’s March 17 statement on Facebook where he shared an email with the agency that stated its dashboard “should not be used to determine the commitment of any agency or individual to the Civil Citation process” — members had no access to accurate data without the collaboration of local law enforcement agencies and the State Attorney’s office.
‘This is a win’
Webster said at the assembly that he wasn’t afraid of tension.
“There is a type of constructive non-violent tension which is necessary for growth,” he said, quoting “A Letter from Birmingham Jail,” by Martin Luther King Jr.
FAITH is launching a campaign to push for this effort, and asked members to send a postcard — provided at the meeting — to Chitwood, the governor, and state representatives asking that the DJJ website portray accurate data, whether through the dashboard or through quarterly reports.
Chitwood and FAITH appear to have reached a consensus, as Webster announced that the sheriff said he would be working with DJJ for this endeavor.
“This is a win for the children in our community,” Webster said, receiving a chorus of car honks in response.
FAITH hopes to have the new data by May 1. Dash said FAITH has been addressing the civil citation issue for years.
“Due to our diligent action, and dedication to data transparency, we are delighted that these issues are finally being looked at,” he said. “We look forward to more collaborative efforts that will ensure reaching law enforcement’s stated goal of 80% usage of civil citations. But, there is more work to be done and we have to stay united.”
Promises made by elected officials
With the rising cost of rent in Volusia County and the lack of affordable housing, several Volusia County Council members promised to advocate for and vote to create a $7 million Housing Trust Fund in Volusia before the end of 2021.
These council members — Barb Girtman, Billie Wheeler and Heather Post (who submitted her responses in writing) — also promised to implement linkage fees as a source for the Housing Trust Fund. Linkage fees secures a portion of dollars per square foot of new development, but Volusia would first need to commission a Nexus study to analyze the need for affordable housing and the link between development and housing costs, according to FAITH.
Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry and DeLand Mayor Bob Apgar (who also submitted his answers in writing) also promised to advocate for linkage fees.
Some Volusia County School Board Members also attended the assembly and promised to direct district staff to create a written plan to expand full school restorative practices, meant to reduce school suspensions, to all schools by the 2022-2023 school year. The Board Members who took this promise were Carl Persis, Ruben Colon and Anita Burnette.
View the original story here.