teen-web.jpgMIAMI — Efforts to reduce out-of-school suspensions and juvenile arrests in Miami-Dade County have shown some success but there is still more work to be done, People Acting for Community Together (PACT), an interfaith grassroots group, has reported.

KeTia Harris, a member of Sellers Memorial United Methodist Church, and Monsignor Chanel Jeanty of St. Philip Neri Catholic Church, said data from 2011 regarding such suspensions found that thousands of students in the Miami-Dade school district were punished in this way for offenses that PACT regards as “minor” infractions in around nine out of 10 instances. 

PACT research also found that 70 percent of youth crime in the county typically occurred during school hours and especially in communities around the schools with the highest rates of out-of-school suspension. 

Speaking at PACT’s annual meeting on Nov. 4, Harris said that School Board Members Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall, Martin Karp and Wilbert T. Holloway addressed the issue in a memorandum in September 2012.

She added that, in the two years since, out-of-school suspensions district-wide have been cut by a third. Also, there has been a significant reduction in juvenile arrests over that same period. 

PACT was meeting at the historic Temple Israel of Greater Miami to review action items and promises made at a session in April.  It drew some 300 attendees.

Al Doyle Jr., a parishioner at Liberty City’s Holy Redeemer Catholic Church and a recent graduate of Miami Northwestern High School, said out-of-school suspensions adversely affected him and his family and  the opportunities available for higher education. His comment came against the background of Northwestern High’s being one of the schools where out-of-school suspensions have actually spiked since the school board neon was issued.

Katrenia Reeves Jackman, a parishioner at St. Phillip Neri, said that kids getting suspended from school often end up in the criminal justice system.

Latalia Smith, a veteran educator at a North Miami-Dade middle school, gave a personal testimony of just such a situation. She said her son was arrested and jailed as a teenager and though he has served his sentence and is now an adult, all his efforts to reintegrate into the community have been unsuccessful.  “He has been continuously rejected for job opportunities,” Smith said.  “Your record blocks your opportunities.”

Valtena Brown, the school district’s chief operating officer, said in her presentation, “We’ve been able to make strides,” thanks to the collaborative efforts of PACT and the school district. But, she added, “we still have a long way to go.”

That view was shared by many attendees, including Cathy Burgos of Miami-Dade’s Juvenile Services Department. She said a decline in
juvenile arrests should continue but that Liberty City, Homestead and Miami Gardens were still among “problem areas.” 

Burgos said her department has been working hard to roll out “innovative programs to keep children out of the system.” The programs focus on mental health, substance abuse and family assessments that address root causes for many of the continuing problems.  “Partnership and collaboration,” she said, are the only ways to meet the needs of at-risk children. 

The PACT meeting took place the night before the NAACP, the School District of Broward County, the Broward Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement and judicial agencies signed a historic agreement to curtail the number of out-of-school suspensions and juvenile arrests.

The possibility of such an agreement for Miami-Dade did not surface during the PACT meeting.