By: Tonya Jackson
Part 1 of 2
For months, local community organizations have been meeting to discuss the school to prison pipeline. On Monday, April 18th, they met with the public for their fourth and final forum. Led by Paula Montgomery, chair of the education committee of The League of Women Voters, Pensacola Bay Area. Organizations involved in the event included the ACLU, Coffee Party, Escambia Youth Justice Coalition, and the Escambia County School District.
The invitation promised, “They will discuss the way school discipline is handled in each school and provide statistics on expulsion, suspension and graduation rates during the last five years. The League’s goal is to learn what is being done as well as outcomes for the children in the County’s public schools.” Also, “Come learn how Escambia County Schools are addressing this and other problems which arise from the traumatic impact of poverty and insecurity on our students.“
The panel for the evening included Lesa Morgan Director of High School Education, Vicki Gibowski, Director, Middle School Education in the Office of Secondary Education, Terri Szafran, Exceptional Student Services Director, Dr. Lisa Joyner, Coordinator, Student Services, Avis Schirato, M.Ed, Special Education Administration and Vickie Mathis, Director, Department of Alternative Education. Steve Marcanio, Assistant Superintendent Curriculum and Instruction Office, introduced the panel and from time-to-time joined the panelists in answering questions.
At the onset, Montgomery assured everyone “all of these organizations, by the way, are issue orientated and not partisan. None of these organizations promotes a particular political party or a platform of a political candidate.” While Montgomery set the ground rules for the discussion, the group took some of the power from the attendees to get the answers they needed. The audience was told to write their questions on the cards they received so the moderator, Lisa Nellessen-Lara of the Pensacola News Journal, could read them to the panel. They were also told this would make it easier for everyone to hear the questions and the answers.
Instead of getting answers, attendees had their questions watered down, not because Nellessen-Lara didn’t do her job, but in some cases the questions were not clear. For example, when asked, “Who is referring students to the police and why is this rate higher than in other counties?” Nellessen-Lara had to redirect one panelist who was instantly bogged down trying to explain that we are number seven in Florida and not number one. When Nellessen-Lara explained that the writer of the question was referring to a city of our size, it was evident how easily this type of questioning could be misleading.
Additionally, the multiple reminders that questions regarding specific incidents and students would not be addressed due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) kept the current investigation by the U. S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights from being addressed. More specifically, the complaint brought by Washington High School educator Karen Broughton on behalf of her son and which includes allegations that “The District treats African American students differently on the basis of race in the administration for discipline” and “the District treated the Student differently on the basis of race when it charged him with battery, proposed his expulsion with an option for disciplinary reassignment, and brought criminal charges against him on or about October 9, 2015.” This investigation stems from an incident that occurred in October 2015 when Broughton’s son, Brice, attended West Florida High School and the way Brice was subsequently charged.
When 63 percent of the students disciplined only makes up 34 percent of the Escambia County school District, according to Florida statistics for 2013 – 2014, there is a problem. However the meeting on Monday evening left some feeling the meeting was not as effective as it could have been.
“The interaction between the panel and the audience was not efficient. This was a failed attempt.,” said Roddric Johnson, owner of My Shot and a motivational speaker. “My expectations for this evening were very high. I thought there would be a real discussion of the issues. I thought we were going to talk about the numbers and how we can clean up the school to prison pipeline. I thought we would discuss the demographics of the individuals most at risk to be hurt by this system. I thought we would be talking about remedies, treatment plans. There was so much hope in what they were doing, but there was not enough development in what they did,” said Johnson.
Johnson’s question was read during the meeting, and he expressed his desire to be a motivational guest speaker to the students only to be turned away several times while trying to get information on the process. After an initial moment of silence by the panel, panelist Gibowski stated, “you need to have background checks and things like that.”
However, Johnson shared that in his interactions with school officials he was never told of background checks, but rather he was just categorically dismissed. He also shared he is a former prison guard, and a background check is not an issue for him.
Part 2 – next week.