On Tuesday at 1730 hours at the J.E. Hall Center on East Texar Drive in Pensacola there will be a critical Escambia County School Board vote on the new rules for the Student Handbook.
This vote is critical to parents and students of Escambia County because violations of the rules determine if a student will be suspended, expelled, or arrested by Escambia County Sheriff Office's School Resource Officers.
All parents concerned about the rules and criteria to be used for expelling students from school for misdemeanor-level possession of marijuana, for example, are strongly encouraged to come to the Tuesday night and express their opinions. Silence implies consent.
The Monday School Board Workshop Results
Under Florida law (Chapter 1006), there is a zero tolerance, meaning a requirement to expel or arrest a student who brings a gun to school, or who makes a real or fake threat.
However, a 2015 Florida law authorizes "a law enforcement officer to issue a warning to a juvenile who admits having committed a misdemeanor or to inform the child’s parent or guardian of the child’s infraction; allowing a law enforcement officer who does not exercise one of these options to issue a civil citation or require participation in a similar diversion program; requiring a law enforcement officer to provide written documentation in certain circumstances, etc."
Under the same statute (Chapter 1006), "illegal use, possession, or sale of controlled substances, as defined in chapter 893, by any student while the student is upon school property or in attendance at a school function is grounds for disciplinary action by the school and may also result in criminal penalties being imposed."
The statute does not require automatic expulsion; rather, it “encourage[s] schools to use alternatives to expulsion or referral to law enforcement agencies by addressing disruptive behavior through restitution, civil citation, teen court, neighborhood restorative justice, or similar programs. The Legislature finds that zero-tolerance policies are not intended to be rigorously applied to petty acts of misconduct and misdemeanors…”
This part of Florida's statute, Title XLVIII, Chapter 1006, gives the School Board discretion in terms of suspending, expelling, or arresting a student for the illegal possession of a controlled substance.
Under Florida law, possession of marijuana for personal use is 20 grams or less. This amount is a "first degree misdemeanor, punishable with up to one year in jail," according to the Criminal Defense Lawyer website. Possession of more than 20 grams constitutes a "third degree felony punishable with up to five years in prison."
At the Escambia County's School Board workshop, held on Monday, June 15, 2015, Ms. Keyontay Humphries from the American Civil Liberties Union, was given three minutes to address the School Board and make recommendations to change the Board's policies.
Ms. Humphries acknowledged that illegal possession of controlled substances was a problem in Escambia County schools, but she asked the School Board to consider more humane and participatory policies that were not so draconian, meaning zero tolerance for possession of any amount of a controlled substance resulting in a one-year expulsion.
For example, Ms. Humphries pointed out that under the School Board's current rules, young women possessing Midol (now called Menstridol), a drug for treating menstrual pain, have been expelled for one year. Even aspirin and Tylenol fall under the School Board's "zero tolerance" policy that results in a one-year expulsion. To me, that is a "zero tolerance" policy that is just mindless.
Ms. Humphries recommended that the Escambia County School Board enact policies and rules that are in tune with the poverty of parents in the district. School principals need to be more attuned to parents who earn only the minimum wage which is not really adequate to make ends meet, may work two or three jobs, do not have time-off from work, and do not have sick leave to take.
The School Board, in Ms. Humphries' expert opinion, needs to create a policy framework in which principals work WITH parents, rather than a framework in which principals work AGAINST parents. She recommended policies and rules which take into account the totality of familial circumstances and not just the infraction.
For example, parents should be involved BEFORE the school principal decides to expel a student for drugs. Once a school principal decides to expel a student without prior advice from the parents, the parents are in a defensive posture trying to protect their child or children. A discussion or series of discussions between school officials and the parents could result in a punishment that is more orientated towards restitution, that is, making the student do something for the school, rather than retribution, meaning expulsion.
Once a child is expelled for one year, they are on a dangerous glide path towards dropping out, having a harder time finding a job, having lower pay, and generally staying poor or falling into poverty. Moreover, for poor parents, having a child stay home for year creates even more burdens on a family.
Ms. Humphries also recommended that principals and parents agree to refer the child to a DART program or the Teen Courts program, as an alternative to automatic expulsion for drug related incidents.
Ms. Humphries also recommended that the School Board establish a Special Task Force to create a specific policy document giving parents, students, and School Resource Officers clear-cut clarity on which behaviors will result in law enforcement giving a student a warning or making a direct referral to DART, teen court, civil citation, and arrest. Ms. Cindy Martin and Ms. Marilyn Lowe also supported this proposal.
Mr. Ellison Bennett, representing the National Movement for Civil and Human Rights and a past president of the Pensacola chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, suggested that the Escambia County School Board create a Community Summit to discuss more long-term solutions. All members of the School Board as well as Superintendent Thomas agreed to create and participate in such a Community Summit with the caveat that the "right people" be invited. Mr. Jeff Bergosh, the first board member to address the summit issue, stated that it would "require a real courageous conversation" with the "right people" attending in order for the proposed summit to be successful. It was left unsaid or undefined as to who the "right people" are. Nor was there any discussion of the agenda of such a Community Summit.