“We learn from our mistakes”*
Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino says discipline in Sarasota County had become too heavy-handed, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “I don’t believe that our kids should be going to jail or having criminal records for minor things—which a lot of the kids were being cited and arrested for,” DiPino told representatives from more than a dozen churches and synagogues at a Sarasota United for Responsibility and Equity (SURE) meeting. “That’s what we do when we grow up: We learn from our mistakes. But it takes a whole community to make sure these kids don’t make these mistakes again.”
SURE was organized with help from Direct Action & Research Training Center (DART), a 2015 recipient of a grant from Presbyterian Women’s Thank Offering. DART brings diverse congregations together around shared values and concerns in order to effectively address and resolve community problems. The goal is not merely to solve specific issues. Rather, DART seeks to build organizations in cities that possess enough power to successfully hold political, economic and social systems accountable to acting justly. SURE’s work in Sarasota is a prime example.
Sarasota had one of the highest rates in Florida involving police in incidents related to student discipline. Members of SURE lobbied local and state officials for years to reduce the number of students who were arrested and placed on out-of-school suspension for relatively benign offenses. Before October 1, Sarasota was one of only eight counties in the state not to use a civil citation program. As a result, Sarasota arrested more than 200 first-time juvenile offenders for misdemeanors in 2014. Those petty crimes stay on a juvenile’s record until they are 26 and can prevent them from going to college, qualifying for scholarships, joining the military or entering certain fields. On October 1, an administrative order went into effect making civil citations the default form of law-enforcement-related punishment for first-time juvenile offenders who committed non-violent misdemeanors. Civil citations are like arrests but are forwarded to the Department of Juvenile Justice rather than the local State Attorneys Office and keep students’ records clean.
Another issue tackled by SURE was to create alternatives to out-of-school suspension. Three years ago SURE members met with Sarasota County School Superintendent Lori White and asked her to look into a program called restorative justice, which aims to resolve conflicts and correct behavior by having students confront their issues rather than be suspended. Its highlights include small group sessions where students open up about what is bothering them and how their behavior affects others. “Largely where we’re at now is to be more preventive in having a culture in the classroom that deals with these issues before they escalate,” White said.
*Adapted from a story by Shelby Webb in the October 20, 2015, issue of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Includes information from the DART website.
Learn more about the Thank Offering of Presbyterian Women at www.presbyterianwomen.org/thank.