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Dean Johnson Reviews JUNE Hot Topics

Published on 6/9/2021

Let’s begin this month’s LWVOC Hot Topics report with a few stats that illuminate the HT subject, “The School-to-Prison Pipeline,” referring to the frequency with which kids, as young as elementary school, get shuttled into the juvenile justice system, often unnecessarily, and then end up in adult prison.

*In the most recent reporting year, there were 345,000 suspensions in Florida schools and 570 expulsions. Black students are 2.5 times more likely to be removed from classrooms as white students.

*Florida spends $36 per student on mental-health counseling in schools, the lowest figure in the nation. Maine, the highest, allots $410 per student.

Juvenile justice is a serious issue throughout the nation, and the system in Florida is broken, Hot Topics panelists agreed, especially for minority students -- particularly African Americans.

The school-to-prison crisis “is another iteration of Jim Crow,” said panelist Bob Wesley, the Ninth Judicial Circuit Public Defender. “It interrupts an African American child’s education,” he added.

Also participating in the Wednesday program, moderated by Florida A&M University Law School professor LeRoy Pernell, were Monique Worrell, Ninth Judicial Circuit District Attorney; Marni Stahlman, CEO and president of the Mental Health Association of Central Florida; and Angie Gallo, an Orange County School Board member and also a member of the League of Women Voters Orange County.

Florida schools refer students to law enforcement 30 percent more than the national average, and Worrell said that is often “criminalization of normal childhood behavior” or such problems as dyslexia, hearing or eyesight loss, mental and emotional disabilities. “Increased law enforcement in schools is not good,” she said. “The justice system is just not equipped to deal with many of the problems.”

Worrell also noted that school resource officers (cops) need to be trained because they can’t respond to kids as they do to adults.

Children’s troubles often begin at home where there might be parents with substance-abuse addictions or domestic violence, leading to child neglect, Stahlman said.

That’s why partnerships among schools, community help organizations and the justice system are vital. Wesley added that schools have to be places where kids learn what they don’t learn at home. “We even need schools open till 9 p.m.,” he said.

Because “education is the great equalizer,” Gallo said, schools must address both social and emotional behavior. The earlier educators recognize disabilities, “the better we can help,” she said.

Another statistic: School counselors recommend a ratio of 250 students per counselor. In Florida, it’s 461.1.

We have a lot of work to do, LWVOC members.

Note: There is no Hot Topics in July. We’ll return in August with a program about Brightline, the rail system that will have a station at Orlando International Airport.

Submitted by Dean Johnson