Through our listening process the past few years, we have heard countless stories of families struggling with the education system in Pinellas County. Some feel stuck because the schools in their area are "F" schools. Others are frustrated because their children have been suspended or arrested for misbehavior like talking back, or throwing something on the bus. We heard from teachers who don't feel they get enough support or resources.
One major problem we have identified is the use of out-of-school suspensions. There is ample research showing that out-of-school suspensions do not actually improve a child's behavior, but instead are one of the first steps in the school-to-prison pipeline. In fact, research shows that students who are given even one out-of-school suspension are up to 10 times more likely to drop out of school! (Gonzales, R., Richards, K., & Seeley, K.) In 2016, we asked the School Board to eliminate out-of-school suspensions and instead use a supervised program. The District responded by changing policies regarding elementary suspensions. Now, students in grades K-2 cannot be given OSS without the approval of an area superindent, and students in grade 3-5 cannot be suspended more than 2 days without approval of an area superintendent.
Additionally, the District created 3 suspension centers where middle and high school students could go and receive help instead of being sent home on OSS. Though this is a good first step, the centers only see a handful of students per week, despite the fact that there were over 3,000 in the first half of the 2016-17 school year alone. At our 2017 Rally and Action, we asked School Board Members to conduct an analysis of these centers and provide recommendations to improve them for next year. Four Board Members agreed to do so and we will continue to monitor the centers next school year.
Our schools also have a big problem with academic achievement. The 2015-16 state reading tests showed that over 30 elementary schools in Pinellas County have less than half of their third grade students reading on grade level. This is key because a report released by the Annie E Casey Foundation found that students who cannot read by third grade are four times less likely to graduate high school by age 19. Many believe that this is just a problem in South St. Petersburg because most of the media attention has focused on those schools, but the 32 school with less than half of third graders on reading level are spread all throughout the county. Many of these schools have a high percentage of children in poverty. We are researching curricula and programs with a track record of success specifically with low-income, minority schools. If other cities and counties can teach ALL of their children to read, regardless of their economic situation, then so can we.
For more information or to get involved with the education committee, please contact your congregation's justice ministry team members.
Gonzales, R., Richards, K., & Seeley, K. (2002). Youth out of school: Linking absence to delinquency. Retrieved from the Colorado Foundation for Families and Children: www.schoolengagement.org/truancypreventionregistry/admin/resources/resources/youthoutofschoollinkingabsence todeliquency.pdf.
PCSB Suspension Data. Out of School Suspension Report for 2014-15.http://www.pcsb.org/cms/lib8/FL01903687/Centricity/Domain/170/main1415.pdf
"Double Jeopardy: How Third Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation." Annie E. Casey Foundation, http://www.aecf.org/resources/double-jeopardy/
Pinellas County is in a housing crisis. Working families are living in hotel rooms or living in their cars because they can’t afford the high cost of housing in Pinellas County. During our listening process, dozens of our members shared that they are often paying so much on their housing that they have to choose between eating or paying for their medications. No one should ever have to make that kind of decision.
According to Shimberg Center data, 82,000 families in our county are paying more than half of their income on housing. Nearly all of those families have an income that is less than $47,350 (80% of Area Median Income). Meanwhile, only 4% of households making over $47,350 (80% of AMI) are paying more than half of their income on housing.
There are over 16,000 families on the wait list for HUD’s affordable housing and the list is closed so no other families can access the assistance.
Through research we have learned that there is not enough affordable housing available for families that need it the most. Non-profit developers such as Catholic Charities, Boley Centers, and Family Promise say that their biggest hurdle to getting a family or individual into stable housing is the scarcity of affordable housing options in Pinellas County.
Every ten years Pinellas residents are asked to vote to renew the Penny for Pinellas one cent sales tax which is to be used on infrastructure. At last year’s Nehemiah Action, five of the seven county commissioners agreed to allocate 25% of the next cycle of Penny for Pinellas funds to go towards affordable housing and healthcare needs.
Instead, the preliminary proposals are showing only 1.5% of the Penny being spent on affordable housing. Meanwhile, twice that amount is going to jail maintenance and six times that amount is being spent on “economic development” to encourage companies to relocate to Pinellas County. Although job creation is important, many studies have shown that building facilities for corporations to move headquarters to Florida does not create jobs for current residents. We need more of the next cycle of the Penny for Pinellas tax to benefit the residents of this county.
Reducing Youth Arrests
Problem: Florida continues to arrest too many youth for non-serious offenses. In 2012 Florida arrested 78,195 youth and 73,371 were for non-violent offenses. Florida arrests more of our youth than California or Texas and we arrest double the percentage of our youth in comparison to New York. Over the last five years Florida arrested 4,839 children between the ages of 5 and 10 years old!.
This is a serious problem because when children are arrested they get criminal records that keep them from getting jobs and college scholarships later in life. Children who make simple mistakes are being labeled as criminals and their opportunities are being limited at a young age.
Solution: The state has created a program called Civil Citations through which local law enforcement can divert youth to community-based programs without giving them criminal records. Youth who go through such programs face consequences for their actions. They do community service, make restitution to victims and the community and complete whatever interventions are deemed necessary to change their behavior. Youth in civil citations program are three times less likely to get into trouble again as youth who are arrested for the same infractions. Not only is diverting youth to community-based programs more effective, it also saves money. Over $4,115 per case is saved just on processing fees.
In Pinellas County
Two years ago at our Nehemiah Action we asked the Mayor of St. Petersburg to prioritize reducing youth arrests when he hired a new police chief. The Mayor followed through on his commitment. Currently, the City of St. Petersburg diverts 98% of eligible youth to our civil citation program. This means that 311 children in St. Petersburg were able to avoid lifelong arrest records during the last year alone. In addition to using the civil citation program, Chief Holloway started the new “Second Chance” Program to give children in St. Petersburg immediate consequences for their offenses without giving them criminal records and without having to transport them to the Juvenile Assessment Center in Largo.
Last year at our Nehemiah Action, we asked Chief Slaughter of Clearwater to follow St. Petersburg's lead in using the county's Arrest Avoidance program. At the time, only 68% of eligible children in Clearwater were diverted. Chief Slaughter has followed through on his commitment, and in the three months following our Nehemiah Action he brought up Clearwater's usage rate to 84%.
Two years ago we joined with nine other Justice Ministry Organizations in Florida and got a bill filed to allow law enforcement to offer civil citations to youth who commit a second or third misdemeanor. The Florida Catholic Conference, The Florida United Methodist Conference, the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida and 11th Episcopal District African Methodist Episcopal Church all took positions in support of our ordinance. Our bill passed the legislature with only 3 votes against it and on May 21st it was signed into law by the Governor. We had 22 Republican and Democrat co-sponsors of our bill. From Pinellas, Representative Rouson led the way as prime co-sponsor and Representatives Ahern, Latvala and Peters signed on to co-sponsor the bill.
However, there is still more work to do this year. Even though Pinellas County has a great civil citations/JAAP program, many counties in Florida are not making use of this program. In Polk and Sarasota Counties 0% of eligible youth were diverted. In Hillsborough, kids get arrested for things which Pinellas County youth would not get arrested for. There were over 9,000 youth in the state of Florida who were eligible for civil citations last year who did not receive one and got arrested instead. These children now have an arrest record that will stick with them for the rest of their lives. We are continuing to work on the problem this year in order to ensure that all youth throughout Florida get equal access to civil citation and the opportunity to avoid life-long arrest records for minor offenses.
 FBI Uniform Crime reports http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2012/crime-in-the-u.s.-2012/tables/69tabledatadecpdf
 FL Department of Juvenile Justice Report. http://public.tableausoftware.com/views/DPROFILE/AGE?:embed=y&:display_count=yes#1
 Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, and other officials from throughout the state, confirmed that even though juvenile records are often said to have been expunged or sealed they are still accessible to future employers. He said this was unavoidable due to modern technology.