Education not incarceration

Education

BY HOLLY KESTENIS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG –Local residents gathered at Greater Mt. Zion AME Church to hear new ways the community is working toward stopping the pipeline to prison among our youth with alternative approaches to disciplinary actions.

Parents, grandparents and concerned citizens were in attendance to discuss how to reduce the amount of teenagers in the juvenile justice system, particularly among African-American males.

Although the numbers around Pinellas County are dropping, there are too many children each year being arrested for criminal activity happening in area schools.

Gina Gibbs of Pinellas County Justice and Community Services cited some startling statistics. Bottom line, there are a lot of arrests being made in our schools. According to Gibbs, five of the top 10 schools with the most arrests are right here in St. Petersburg. Azalea Middle School was the only middle school rounding out the top 10. Area high schools, Boca Ciega, Dixie Hollins, Lakewood, and St. Petersburg High School were also among those schools with the highest arrests.

Although there are over 200 students being arrested for felonies, Gibbs argued that the majority of arrests are made for misdemeanors such as disorderly conduct, which averaged 33 percent of the arrests, and assault that averaged about 23 percent. Gibbs clarified assault as threatening or hitting someone without causing severe damage.

“That’s a large chunk of the misdemeanors that maybe in the past wouldn’t have been referred,” said Gibbs who stated that of those school-based arrests around 63 percent of those arrested were African American.

But there’s a juvenile program that is there to help. It’s called the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiatives (JDAI).It’s for first time misdemeanors who are entering the juvenile justice program, regardless of whether they are coming from school, the community or transported by the police. It doesn’t involve any additional costs to participate and is geared toward helping youths stay out of the court system and turn their lives around before it’s too late.

Two Pinellas County judges showed up to give a brief overview of what it’s like when a teen enters their courtroom.

“I try to give them a touch of reality,” said Judge Patrice Moore who plays hardball when court is in session. “Yes they are kids, but sometimes they do things that if they were in an adult role, would make your head spin.”

Moore has seen too many lives wasted with bad decisions and works to make a difference in the lives of those who enter her courtroom, but admits that sometimes they come to her too late, after they are in too deep. She doesn’t believe in a slap on the wrist when trying to prevent a career criminal. “I try to scare them straight, tell them what life will hold if they don’t get it together.”

Members from Pinellas County Schools also were in attendance and took the time to share a few ways they are working toward combating arrests in schools and low academic achievement.

Area Superintendent Dr. Barbara Hires discussed some alternatives in education to meet the growing challenges that arise in a classroom setting.

“Our mission is 100 percent student success,” said Hires as she explained the county’s mission of educating all students and preparing them for college, career and life after high school. She accepts however that it’s all a work in progress.

“I am not ashamed to stand before you today to say we have not arrived, nor have we accomplished our goal to educate, not incarcerate, 100 percent of our students in Pinellas County schools,” said Hires who plans to continue to work with school leaders, teachers and the community in order to confront the school-to-prison pipeline affecting so many families.

To begin with, all schools are implementing positive behavior support (PBS) to reduce disciplinary incidences and increase a sense of safety in schools as well as, supporting academic outcomes.

“We know that school climate is a key,” said Hires who touched on solutions stemming from challenging environmental variables such as physical setting, curriculum, instructional pace and positive reinforcement.

Part of the positive attitude the schools are trying to implement deals with changing titles. Instead of labeling students as part of a dropout prevention program, the school system is renaming their efforts to help those in need.

The new program will be called Educational Alternative Services and the hope is that program participants and their families will gain some positive options to traditional schooling without the stigma associated with these different routes.

Clearwater High School Principal Keith Mastorides received a round of applause as he enthusiastically spoke of some of the new alternative services being offered at his school.

“We know that kids think much differently than we do,” he said pointing out that change is necessary to be successful. “We’ve been doing education the same way for over 100 years.”

Mastorides spoke of the three concepts that will bring excellence to any school: rigor, relevance and relationships. By engaging students in new ways and forging relationships with teachers, administrators and peers the pipeline-to-prison could be halted as more students stay in school and venture on to higher education or career paths that will keep them happy and fulfill their basic needs to survive in the real world.

School resource officers (SRO) spoke about changing the way they handle in school behavior issues. Opting to look at all the options before referring teens to the juvenile justice system where they can get caught up in a downward spiral.

“Our kids, just like us, do stupid stuff at school sometimes,” said Chief Stelljes with the SRO. “We really don’t need to criminalize some of those things that we really need to be taking care of at the school level.”

Those in attendance were given the opportunity to ask questions or state their opinions or concerns with the juvenile justice system. Pastor Rainey who worked more than 30 years in education brought up the need to make a commitment and stick to it when it comes to solving the problems of keeping African Americans in school and out of trouble.

“We find programs that work and we let them stay in place for about two or three years and then we stop them,” he said. “When you find something that’s good, support it.”

Community Activist Kurt Donnelly believes the school district is in need of implementing a district wide behavior plan. He feels a discrepancy in what is acceptable from school-to-school puts some students at a disadvantage.

“If each school has a separate behavior plan and each school is set up differently economically, how can it be equal?” he asked.

For more information on how to get involved in mentoring youths, or even working behind the scenes to help educate not incarcerate, contact Gina Gibbs at ggibbs@pinellascounty.org or call 727-453-7436.

To reach Holly Kestenis, email hkestenis@theweeklychallenger.com

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