pact-fc-cc.jpgOPA-LOCKA – Several hundred people turned out on a rainy Monday night to express concerns over school suspensions and call for increased community response to youth crime.

The event, held at New Birth Baptist Church Cathedral of Faith International in Opa-locka, was organized and hosted by People Acting for Community Together (PACT). 

The grassroots group comprising different religious congregations focuses on the high numbers of youth in

socially vulnerable areas of Miami-Dade County who are being suspended from school for weeks at a time. 

PACT also cites studies that draw links between areas with high numbers of suspended students and spikes in crime rates in those areas.

Representatives from Miami-Dade County, Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the city of Miami Gardens were called before the large gathering to listen to needs, respond to demands and make promises for solutions. “We came here to take action,” said the Rev. Robert Brooks, pastor of St. Peter’s Missionary Baptist Church.

PACT based its argument on data from 10 high schools for the academic years of 2010-11 and 2011-12: Miami Carol City, Miami Northwestern, Miami Central, North Miami Beach, Hialeah Miami-Lakes, Miami Edison, Miami Jackson, Homestead, South Dade and Miami Southridge.

The data showed that, for the 2011-12 school year, more than 27 percent of the total students enrolled in those schools were given out-of-school-suspension, representing an overall increase of almost 2 percent over the previous school year.  Almost all of these suspensions were due to minor rule infractions.

PACT also reported that “67 percent of juvenile crime is committed by high school aged children Tuesday through Friday,” mostly “when students are out of school.”

DeeAnne Barnard of Theos Family Ministry said that PACT representatives discussed the matter with Miami-Dade County School Board Member Wilbert Holloway and other school district officials last year. 

From that meeting, Barnard said, policy changes were proposed that include making sure that minor infractions were not grounds for suspension.  The ultimate goal of the group is to effectively cap the out-of-school

suspension rate at not more than 10 percent,” she said. 

Deputy School Superintendent Valtena Brown was asked by PACT to pledge that the district will observe the 10 percent cap each school year within three years. Brown promised to do so within five years.

 PACT members said their goal is to ensure what Kevin Brown of Love Fellowship Ministries in Bunche Park called a “safe learning environment for all children.” 

Juan Manzueta of St. Monica Catholic School added that PACT wants “children to be in supervised settings where they can learn.”  In other words, if a student violates the school district’s code of conduct, activists want suspension, if that is necessary, that will allow them to stay in school, arguing that out-of-school suspensions are being overused and inappropriately used..

 With regard to crime, Brown said “a collaborative effort” is needed to address the problem. He and others said Miami-Dade County’s Neighborhood Resource Units or NRUs can be a starting point.

Joan Lyons of Christ the King Catholic Church in Perrine described the NRU model as “effective” but needing refinement and support. Other NRUs should also be created where needed. Specifically, PACT identified South Miami Heights and Miami Gardens as high priority areas in need of NRUs.

Miami Gardens Police Major Alfred Lewis said he did not have the power to commit to such a move, deferring instead to Police Chief Matthew Boyd and the Miami Gardens City Council.

Rabbi Gary Glickstein of Temple Beth Sholom was not discouraged.

“We intend to continue to work with Miami Gardens,” he said.  “Our goals are their goals.” 

 Miami-Dade Police Department Director J.D. Patterson was receptive to the ideas presented by PACT, including committing to strengthening NRUs through a partnership with the police.

Miami-Dade County Deputy Mayor Russell Benford drew rousing applause when he promised to ensure that several county departments were included within the fabric of the NRUs, including the departments of health, police, public housing and juvenile justice, and the South Florida WorkForce. 

The county will build what will be the first permanent WorkForce facility in a public housing development, Benford said.