FASTPublic Education Improvement

Pinellas faith-based group’s rally urges leaders to reduce youth arrests and fix failing schools

By April 19, 2016July 26th, 2016No Comments

April 18, 2016. Tampa Bay Times.

Gwen Anderson made sure administrators at Bay Point Middle School were aware that her eighth-grade grandson was struggling with traumatic childhood experiences.

So when he got five days of out-of-school suspension, Anderson, a former principal, fought it with administrators, feeling that time out of the classroom would only hurt him more.

“You can’t just blanketly dole out suspensions without looking at the whole child,” said Anderson, 63. “There must be an alternative to out-of-school suspension and one where kids keep learning.”

Anderson was one of several community members who shared their stories at Nehemiah Action, an annual gathering organized by Faith and Action for Strength Together that this year drew about 3,000 people. The faith-based group each year surveys community leaders on three issues they want elected officials to address.

The chant of the evening was “Enough is enough,” as representatives from 40 congregations addressed county commissioners, School Board members and other officials. They pressed those leaders to reduce arrests of children through civil citation programs, improve services for homeless people by reducing waits with the county’s 211 referral hotline and fix failing schools by committing to change discipline and curriculum issues.

“Public relationships are about respect and getting something done,” said Father Len Piotrowski of Espiritu Santo Catholic Church in Safety Harbor during an introduction to the event. “We gather to seek real solutions to change the lives of people in our community.”

During the education segment, Anderson was joined by several community members with children and grandchildren in the county school system. They included one mother whose daughter fell behind from a subpar reading education and a man with a grandson who was repeatedly given out-of-school suspensions that pushed him into the hands of drug dealers.

Five out of seven School Board members were in attendance, with Peggy O’Shea and Terry Krassner absent. The Rev. Robert Ward of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church also noted the absence of superintendent Michael Grego, who Ward said declined an invitation to attend a fundraiser at Innisbrook Golf Resort.

To the board members in attendance, the group requested that they create a supervised suspension program by next school year and implement a policy to stop nonviolent disorderly conduct arrests in schools. They also urged them to implement a core reading curriculum with a proven track record of success in the district’s 21 lowest performing schools. Each member said they would commit to making the changes, with a few exceptions and clarifications.

“Let’s shut down that school-to-prison pipeline,” said Linda Stoller, with Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater. “Enough is enough.”