NAACP brainstorms ways to cut juvenile arrests
Published: Wednesday, April 10, 2013 at 2:43 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 10, 2013 at 2:43 p.m.
Black juveniles in Alachua County are being arrested at an alarming rate — especially in Alachua County Public Schools — and that is going to change if the Alachua County branch NAACP and others have their way.
That was the consensus formed at a mass meeting on the subject of "Schools to Prison Pipeline" sponsored by the NAACP and held Sunday evening at Mount Carmel Baptist Church.
The meeting featured a panel that included Judge Walter Green of the Eighth Judicial Circuit of Florida that serves Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Gilchrist, Levy and Union counties; Tony Jones, chief of the Gainesville Police Department; the Rev. Karl Smith, pastor of Greater Bethel AME Church, who also is a member of the Black on Black Crime Task Force subcommittee dealing with juvenile delinquency; Attorney David J. Utter, policy and legislative director with the Southern Poverty Law Center in Florida, and Philoron A. Wright Sr., assistant to the superintendent of community and schools for Alachua County Public Schools.
Utter said he decided to attend the meeting as he made his way from Miami to Tallahassee for the Florida Legislature session on a discussion of Senate Bill 1374, or School Zero-Tolerance Policies, which, if passed, will require schools to only report to law enforcement acts that pose a serious threat to school safety.
Utter said the number of students who get arrested at schools in Alachua County is more than double the state average.
"The state rate is 10 per 1,000, but in Alachua County, it is 23 per 1,000, more than double the state average, and remember that Florida is the No. 1 schools to prison pipeline state in the nation," Utter said. "Remember that I told you 14 percent of juvenile arrests in Florida occurred in schools. It is 23 percent in Alachua County."
Several recommendations were made during the meeting to eradicate the problem, including encouraging parents to be more involved in the education of their children, training school police and administrators to deal with students in ways that eliminate the need to charge them with misdemeanors and starting a campaign to get businesses to allow their employees to spend at least one hour each month to volunteer at a school.
Utter also said statistics from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice for the 2011-2012 school year show that 76 percent of arrests at schools in Alachua County were for misdemeanors, compared to 67 percent statewide.
"In Alachua County, as the rest of the state has gotten better about making sure that students are only arrested for serious threats to school safety, we have gone in the opposite direction in Alachua County," Utter said.
Leanetta McNealy, an Alachua County School Board member and former principal of Duval Elementary Fine Arts Academy, was the one who suggested the idea of encouraging businesses to allow employees to go into the schools once a month.
At the end of the meeting, Michael Bowie, an NAACP executive board member who presided over the meeting, at the behest of Smith from the task force, said the NAACP, along with other community organizations and stakeholders, will send a letter to local employers encouraging them to allow their employees to go into the schools to try to make a difference in the lives of students.
"I think if we go to them united, we will get much more from them," Smith said.
Jones of GPD talked about the impact when there is collaboration among stakeholders. He cited a $25,000 grant from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Children's Law and Policy's Racial and Ethnic Disparities Project that was given to GPD and other community stakeholders last year for their efforts to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system.
"We are one of only two cities in the nation to receive this grant," Jones said.
Green talked about the Alachua County Teen Court Program, which is basically run by students and he also talked about the need for some children and teens to be punished when they violate the law. Wright stood up for teachers and administrators, saying they have a responsibility to make sure classrooms and school campuses are safe.
Evelyn Foxx, president of the county NAACP, said the meeting was a success and she is looking forward to the development of an action plan that will deal with the problem.
"I think this was a great start and I look forward to our next mass meeting that will be held within the next two months to further deal with this issue," Foxx said. "I am pleased with the turnout and I am excited about the people who showed up tonight to support this issue."