On January 25, 2016, the Pensacola chapter of the League of Women Voters Education Committee, headed by Paula Montgomery, presented its fourth panel discussion examining the causes, consequences, and public policy actions needed to severely reduce the number of Escambia County children entering the school-to-prison pipeline. Held at Franco's restaurant, co-sponsors of the night's event were the American Civil Liberties Union (panelist Keyontay Humphries), the Southern Poverty Law Center (panelist Dr. Amir Whitaker), the non-partisan Coffee Party, the Escambia Youth Justice Coalition, as well as supportive organizations, the Lakeview Center, Lutheran Family Services, the Early Learning Center, and previous co-host of the documentary film "Paper Tigers," the National Association of Social Workers. Ms. Lisa Nellessen-Lara, executive editor of the Pensacola News Journal again served as the moderator.
Panelists included former Chief of Police Chip Simmons, who now heads the Escambia County Jail. Chief Simmons was the first police chief in the region to have his officers use body cameras, and from the very start championed the use of the Civil Citation program (CCP) to keep children out of the juvenile or adult criminal justice system;
Sergeant Gary Venuti, Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office and head of the county's 43-person Youth Services Division. Under Sgt. Venuti's guidance and direction the unit was awarded the 2014 Florida Unit of the Year and the 2015 National Model Agency of the Year awards;
Senior Commander Dale Tharp, who was the county's first School Resource Officer in 1986 and now heads the Escambia County Sheriff's Office's Community Services Division which includes the School Resource Officer program;
Dr. Amir Whitaker, a brainiac with five university degrees, including a law degree from the University of Miami, has nine years of extensive teaching experience spanning from South Central Los Angeles to South Africa, is himself a graduate of the juvenile justice system, and a Southern Poverty Law Center civil rights attorney stationed in Montgomery, Alabama; Dr. Whitaker also founded Project KnuckleHead (like on Facebook) to empower at-risk youth to reach their potential greatness. Project KnuckleHead has affected more than 1,000 youth in Florida and California through its mentoring, intervention, music, and after-school programs; and,
Ms. Keyontay Humphries, regional organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union, facilitator for the Escambia Youth Justice Coalition (EYJC), and campaign coordinator for Justice4 Jacksonville. The EYJC was a forceful proponent for reviving the Youth Civil Citation Program across Florida's 1st Judicial Circuit and the revision of Escambia County School District's Code of Conduct, also known as the Student's Rights and Responsibilities Handbook which now includes progressive discipline, tracking, and early parent engagement. In 2012, while working for the Southern Poverty Law Center, she was instrumental in filing complaints against five Florida school districts including Escambia and Okaloosa counties with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. All of the complaints resulted in open and active investigations by the federal government. She is also the co-host of Our Voices, an Internet radio call-in show sponsored by The McIntosh Principle and co-host Mr. Jerry McIntosh.
PREVIOUS SCHOOL-TO-PRISON PIPELINE EVENTS
The first school-to-prison pipeline discussion was held in late August 2015. The stellar panelists included a mix of professional school administration (Mrs. Mary Beth Jackson, Okaloosa School Superintendent), law enforcement (Pensacola Chief of Police David Alexander), criminal justice (Ms. Mary McDaniel, former 1st Judicial Circuit Public Defender), public advocates (Dr. Amir Whitaker, SPLC and Ms. Keyontay Humphries, ACLU), and academia (Dr. Rick Harper, director, UWF Office of Economic Development and Engagement).
The panel put forth the central idea that reducing the number of children entering the school-to-prison pipeline requires an engaged citizenry and top-down, strategic executive decisions by key stakeholders including the Superintendent of Schools and school board, local law enforcement, the State Attorney, youth advocate organizations, and other elected bodies willing to devote resources to children. Another central idea is that the effects of the school-to-prison pipeline are so deleterious to the children and the community, that everything that can be done to keep children out of the juvenile or adult criminal justice system should be tried. Entering the criminal justice system should be the absolute last resort--not the first.
The panel discussed policies and programs that have worked--in and out of Florida. What is fundamental is that a school district dedicate itself through top-down policies and implemented programs to reduce the number of children entering the school-to-prison pipeline to the absolute minimum. What will not solve the problem is not even bothering to show up and discuss the problem, or, to engage in magical thinking that somehow all you have to do is mouth the words and change will happen.
Thus, it was quite disappointing to the concerned citizens that Superintendent of Schools Malcolm Thomas, despite being invited to the fourth community meeting on the school-to-prison pipeline, refused to come and instead decided to amuse himself watching a spelling bee contest. No one from the Escambia County School Board attended. That is an indicator of how concerned Superintendent Thomas is about the problem.
The second panel discussion held in October 2015 at Franco's restaurant featured a panel of a legal public defender (Ms. Kelly Richards), public prosecutors (Ms. Marjorie Anders and Mr. Greg Marcille), a public advocate (Ms. Tania Galloni, SPLC), and youth advocate (Rev. Rick Branch, downtown United Methodist Church). The community was also treated to a documentary Ted talk, "When your child will be eligible for parole," presenting scientific evidence that while juveniles may know the difference between right and wrong, their brains have not developed the "hard wiring" to control fully their behavior. This meeting was sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Escambia Youth Justice Coalition, and the Coffee Party. Ms. Lisa Nellessen-Lara served as the moderator.
The third event on the school-to-prison pipeline was hosted in December 2015 by the Pensacola News Journal, the League of Women Voters, the National Association of Social Workers, and the Coffee Party. The centerpiece of the evening was the award-winning film, Paper Tigers. Ms. Teresa Zwierzchowski, the newspaper's Consumer Experience director moderated the Question and Answer session after the film.
The large December crowd was treated to a scientifically informed discussion by Dr. James Arruda, chair of the Department of Psychology, University of West Florida; Dr. Sam Matthews, Associate Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychology, University of West Florida and visiting professor at the University of Tallinn's (Estonia) Educational Sciences; Dr. Dione King, assistant professor, Department of Social Work, University of West Florida; Dr. Lisa Joyner, coordinator of Student Services for Escambia County School District; and, Ms. Esi Shannon, assistant principal at Escambia High School.
The following information is from the film's press release:
"Paper Tigers follows a year in the life of an alternative high school in Walla Walla, WA, that has radically changed its approach to disciplining its students, and in the process has become a promising model for how to break the cycles of poverty, violence and disease that affect families. The film is ideal viewing for educators, administrators, health-care staff, parents, social workers, mentors, and social justice advocates. Paper Tigers is designed to spark dialogue and offer hope to schools and youth struggling with dropout rates, truancy, violence, abuse and drug use."
A two-minute trailer of the film is here. More information regarding Adverse Childhood Experiences teaching and resources are located here. The Paper Tigers website also has links to more resources. Finally, you can take the Adverse Childhood Experiences test here.
The fourth event built upon the presentations and findings of the three previous events.
STATEMENT OF THE SOLUTIONS
What is especially striking in the video presentations below, above and beyond the problems that have to be identified and addressed, and the policies and programs that need to be funded and implemented, is the heart and soul and love that the panelists displayed for children. It is especially telling in the presentations where you might least expect it: former Pensacola Chief of Police Chip Simmons; Sgt. Gary Venuti, Okaloosa Sheriff's Office and head of their School Resource Officers program; and, Senior Commander Dale Tharp, Escambia County Sheriff's Office, head of the county's School Resource Officer's program. This love is also clearly visible in the presentations by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Dr. Amir Whitaker and the American Civil Liberty Union's Ms. Keyontay Humphrey. Additionally, one can also see and sense that former adversaries--youth advocates and law enforcement--can all put their egos aside, especially in law enforcement, and for the love of children reach substantive agreements.
And, credit must be given to Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan who has worked as well as he can to reduce the number of children being arrested, though the number remains way too high. From the panel presentations it appears that Sheriff Morgan's efforts to reduce juvenile arrests are thwarted by Superintendent Malcolm Thomas who refuses to meet with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center, and, in a cosmetic effort to appear caring and doing something enacts "toothless" policies that please the eye.
One central theme that comes out of the fourth presentation, but is rooted in the first presentation by Okaloosa School Superintendent Jackson, is that while we should take into account and not dismiss high levels of community poverty, the presence of institutional racism, and psychological biases among all teachers, principals, and law enforcement, the fact remains that none of those factors prevent meaningful, significant, life-altering policy changes for our children. It is a matter of political and personal will. If you want to end something, you end it. You don't try to end it.
Both Dr. Whitaker and Ms. Humphries in their presentations noted that in terms of terrible outcomes for school-age children, both Escambia County and Okaloosa County were so bad that the Southern Poverty Law Center sued both districts (and three others) in federal court. And, while the socio-economic and demographic differences between the two counties are readily apparent, one county's efforts and results are touted by the SPLC and the ACLU, while the other county, Escambia County, continues to obfuscate, resist, and obstruct (my words). That is the difference between Mrs. Jackson, Superintendent of Schools in Okaloosa County, and Mr. Malcolm Thomas, Superintendent of Schools for Escambia County. One took bold executive decisions and actions to do something to severely reduce the number of children entering the school-to-prison pipeline, and the other merely wants to preen and prattle in public (my words).
Okaloosa County is thought so highly of, here are the two video presentations of Superintendent Jackson from the first League of Women Voters school-to-prison pipeline community event from August 2015:
And here is Superintendent Jackson extolling the accomplishments of the county's School Resource Officers headed by Sgt. Gary Venuti:
VIDEO BIOGRAPHIES OF PANELISTS
Former Pensacola Chief of Police, Chip Simmons
Dr. Amir Whitaker, Southern Poverty Law Center
Sgt. Gary Venuti, Youth Services Division, Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office
Senior Commander, Dale Tharp, Community Services Division, Escambia County Sheriff's Office
Ms. Keyontay Humphries, regional organizer, American Civil Liberties Union
THE FOURTH SCHOOL-TO-PRISON PIPELINE EVENT
Overall Introduction, Ms. Paula Montgomery, League of Women Voters, Pensacola
Statement from the floor by Ms. Eliades Sampson, president, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Pensacola
Opening Statement, Mr. Chip Simmons, former PPD Chief
Mr. Simmons emphasized the value to him personally of children receiving mentoring and second and third chances. As police chief, he supported the Civil Citation Program right from the start. He pressed the State Attorney to include as many misdemeanor crimes as possible in the CCP. As chief, he made the executive decision that use of the CCP by School Resource Officers would be the default policy. If an SRO did not use the CCP with a child, that officer would have to explain in writing why not. While not all crimes qualified, the goal was that every child who qualified would get a citation. It saved Pensacola taxpayers money and it saved children.
Opening Statement, Dr. Amir Whitaker, SPLC
Dr. Whitaker's opening remarks were accompanied by or mentioned several documents included here.
According to his "3 Facts About School Arrests in Escambia's Prison Pipeline," the Escambia County School District has one of the highest in-school arrest rates in the entire country. Nearly 90 percent of Florida's school districts arrest children less frequently than the ECSD. While school arrests declined last year by six percent, in Escambia County they rose by 11 percent. Three ECSD schools--Warrington Middle School (number 6), Pine Forest High School (number 15), and Escambia High School (number 25)--are in the top twenty-five schools for arrests in Florida. There have been 1,212 arrests over the past four years. While Black students make up 35 percent of the school district, they account for 77 percent of the arrests. Escambia County arrests more students for disorderly conduct than twenty counties combined. Dr. Whitaker also made available a spreadsheet of arrests by school in Escambia County.
Opening Statement, Sgt. Gary Venuti, Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office
Sgt. Venuti emphasized that the Okaloosa Sheriff shut down programs in order to put School Resource Officers into the county's schools. The Sheriff's SRO's receive the same training as teachers for de-escalation techniques. The SRO's also receive training for interacting with autism students. When recruiting officers to be SROs, they put officers with special needs children of their own in schools with special needs children, and, they put the high achievers in tougher schools. Sgt. Venuti's presentation indicated that considerable thought had gone into staffing this sensitive program.
Opening Statement Senior Commander Dale Tharp, Escambia County Sheriff's Office
Commander Tharp was proud of the fact that he was the county's first School Resource Office in 1986. Children have three chances with the Civil Citation Program. Unfortunately, a schoolyard fights that we had as children now result in arrests because parents insist that their child's opponent be arrested. Commander Tharp emphasized that parents need to sign the Civil Citation, otherwise their children are arrested. Twice during the evening Tharp stated that if the Escambia County Sheriff's Office arrested zero children in school during the year, he would be pleased. He suggested that while there were things that could be done to help make this closer to a reality, there were unspecified action items that Superintendent Thomas had not done
It is important to note here, that Dr. Whitaker pointed out in his presentation that while only two percent of out-of-school youth are arrested for disorderly conduct, 24 percent of in-school youth are arrested for disorderly conduct. Since the officers are the same and the youth are the same, the problem of in-school arrests for disorderly conduct appears related to factors unique to the Escambia County School District schools.
Opening Statement, Ms. Keyontay Humphries, ACLU
Ms. Humphries distinguished between criminal versus school discipline. We should be striving to keep childish behaviors within the school system. We need engaged parents who go to Parent-Teacher Association meetings, parent-teacher nights, and school board meetings. The Escambia County School District does not track who they are interacting with for school discipline. We need policy changes. The disciplinary guidance matrix in the student's handbook is not mandatory. It is optional for each principal whether he or she uses trauma-informed care in their school. We need top-down decisions like in Okaloosa County. Former PPD chief Simmons, current PPD Chief Alexander, and Sheriff Morgan all talk to the ACLU. The ECSD will not talk to the ACLU. Superintendent Jackson stepped into a bad situation--the district had been sued by the ACLU--and made an executive decision to stop sending children home for out-of-school suspensions. Broward County has instituted a "Promise Plan" that is a binding document having community support. Duval County uses restorative justice whereby a community board decides punishment, such as community service. She recommend support for SB 490 currently in the Florida legislature. She noted that under this bill the School Board would also vote on school discipline, not just the Superintendent. The bill would require school districts to find alternatives to suspensions, expulsions and arrests. Camelot, an alternative school for out-of-school expulsions, has increased its enrollment. In 2012, the ECSD expelled 73 students in 2012. In 2014, Camelot had 181 students from disciplinary reassignment. Ms. Humphries noted that disciplinary reassignment looks a lot like expulsions.
According to CJ's Street Report research, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that for school year 2013-2014, Camelot enrolled 159 students in grades 6 through 12. Of the 159 students, 118 or 74 percent were Black. Of the 159 students, 114 or 72 percent were males. In other words, one way to view the private Camelot is that it is a warehouse for young Black males on their eventual way to prison.
QUESTION AND ANSWER SESSION
Question: Who makes decisions on issuing a Civil Citation?
Ms. Humphries pointed out that civil citations are for misdemeanors of the first, second, or third time. It could be for fighting (legally called affray) or arguing with a teacher, or taking a USB cord home. They are for low-level offenses. Law enforcement issues the civil citation, but the initial decision is from the school dean who calls the SRO. The SRO can issue a civil citation based on invitation or direct observation. Commander Tharp indicated that in the case of the missing USB cord, the school district is the victim. He stated, "If we can issue a civil citation, we will."
Question: Who is the agent of change, the School Board or the Superintendent?
The Superintendent is the chief adminstrator, Ms. Humphries pointed out. The School Board makes policy, but they generally vote unanimously for whatever the Superintendent proposes. If the public wants changes in policy, you need the Superintendent to make the policy changes. The Escambia County Sheriff's Office (ECSO) needs the community's support regarding civil citations. The ECSO is ally of the community on this issue and there needs to be more collaboration between the ECSO and the community in order to demonstrate to the ECSD that there is strong community support for the Civil Citation Program.
Sgt. Venuti pointed out that the "relationship of school district and law enforcement is very critical." The Okaloosa SRO department and school district lawyers have quarterly reviews of each incident inquiring as to why something happened and why the school responded the way it did. Okaloosa School District uses its Student Training Program as a substitute for out-of-school suspensions. The termination of out-of-school suspensions did not result in expected or anticipated rises in school fights and crimes. The school district also uses restorative justice to provide children another avenue for discipline that does not put a child into the juvenile justice system.
Question: Why would a parent refuse to sign a civil citation?
Commander Tharp observed that some parents believe that their children are not guilty. They are not aware that the civil citation is an opportunity to keep their child out of the juvenile justice system.
Question: What specific policies did Sheriff Morgan institute regarding civil citations and arresting juveniles?
Commander Tharp pointed out that the State Attorney set limits on the number of offenses that could be included in the Civil Citation Program. Sheriff Morgan resisted those limits and pushed for more misdemeanor criminal acts to be included in the CCP. The Pensacola Police Department also resisted the State Attorney's restrictions.
Question: How does poverty affect school discipline?
Ms. Humphries noted that while poverty may lead to the behaviors, with such indicators as lack of sleep, hunger, and lack of supervision, poverty is not an excuse for policies not dealing with administrative problems. Broward County has a "Grandparent Helpers" program. These grandparents assist the schools in reaching out to parents during school hours and report back the results of their inquiry. If a child needs to be watched at school, the grandparent watches the student until the parent can come to the school.
Poverty, Humphries pointed out, may cause the behaviors, but poverty should not prevent school administrators and law enforcement from doing the right thing in terms of policies or reactions to the behaviors.
Question: How much do private alternative schools cost?
Dr. Whitaker observed that Florida may be the only state where alternative residential programs are privatized. It costs $60,000 to keep one child in the juvenile system for one year. Florida, as a whole, spends somewhat less than $10,000 per child per year to educate him or her. He suggested that we need more resources going into education in Florida and nationwide.
Ms. Humphries pointed out that it costs $200 to process a civil citation. It costs $4,000 to make an arrest. She suggested that we need to see School Resource Officers use more discretion to just send students back to their classroom rather than issuing a civil citation. However, schools overrule their SROs. She suggested we need better data on this aspect of the problem. Commander Tharp would support more discretion for his SROs. Commander Tharp also pointed out that affray--fighting in public--comes out in the crime statistics as disorderly conduct. He pointed out that Sheriff Morgan wants to change that. Commander Tharp also explained the three-strike rule for students.
Ms. Humphries stated that last year Escambia County arrrested 284 students. Okaloosa County arrested 28 students.
Sgt. Venuti emphasized that relationships with school officials is important. It is the Sheriff's policy not to arrest students and to keep children out of the justice system. It is important that the Sheriff's Office and the school district have the same philosophy.
Escambia County had almost 3,000 out-of-school suspensions. Escambia County has SROs with the same training as SROs in Okaloosa County. It is the school district. Sgt. Venuti also pointed out that an individual SRO has to "buy in" to this community, Sheriff, and school policy or they are removed from the program.
Question: Why is the Escambia County School District resistant to change?
Ms. Humphries pointed out that Superintendent Thomas had made some changes and that he had stated that it is sometimes hard to change a bureaucratic culture. But Humphries responded that policy can change by executive action.
Both Okaloosa and Escambia counties were treating children alike. They were so alike that the federal government began investigating both. The districts are demographically different, but Okaloosa County took executive actions by the Superintendent to change policies.
The SPLC filed lawsuits against Escambia and then Okaloosa counties 90 days apart. Okaloosa changed policies; Escambia did not.
Dr. Whitaker reported that the SPLC had drafted an agreement with the chief counsel of the Escambia County School District, but Superintendent Thomas did not support the agreement.
Ms. Humphries noted that racism cannot be blamed and no one is claiming that the Superintendent or the School Board is racist. But, one cannot dismiss or overlook racial disparities. These differences could be related to bias and lack of training. But, a solution first comes by recognizing that there is a problem.
The school district's matrix (for elementary schools and for secondary schools) are a guide. They placate the community. The Superintendent supports policies with no teeth.
Question: What are the roles and responsibilities of school counselors?
Ms. Humphries pointed out that school counselors are responsible for making sure students matriculate from school and that every student progresses through the school grades. They are not doing interventions as a primary duty. Escambia County lacks programs and policies. Psychological services need a referral to a behavioral health service. Escambia County needs more funding to lower case loads.
Question: How does the community effect changes in policies?
Former police chief Simmons stated that public meetings addressing the problems helps. Ms. Humphries stressed the need for community involvement at school board meetings. There is a need for residents to scrutinize school board candidates. Their philosophy is important. Clearly, the tough on crime approach has not worked. We need to be smart on crime. We need to be smart on justice. We need community organizing. She noted that Sheriff Morgan is very approachable. Like him or not, he is available for community input.
Humphries once again stated that the data pointed to differences in school district policy rather than demographics for differences across districts. Santa Rosa county arrested 34 children and had less than 1,000 out-of-school suspensions; Okaloosa County arrested 28 children and had about 300 out-of-school suspensions; Escambia County arrested 283 and had more than 3,000 out-of-school suspensions.
The explanation is not that children in Escambia County are acting out more than children in other counties; or poverty; or the lack of parents. The difference is due to policies.
Thank you and goodbye.