Published July 23, 2012

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE-………Student protesters at Gov. Rick Scott”s office spent Monday talking with Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters about bills they backed during the 2013 legislative session that never got a hearing.

The discussion was prompted by Scott, who asked Walters early Monday to go to the Capitol to meet with the protesters. The governor had spoken with seven members of the group Thursday night for about an hour and heard some of their personal experiences, and he asked Walters to listen to them, too.

“Many of the concerns that you brought to (Scott) are concerns that he feels very strongly about, that he shares,” Walters told the protesters, who were gathered in the governor”s office waiting area. “We have been working very hard to reform the juvenile justice system.”

The protesters have been holding a sit-in since last Tuesday, when they marched to the Capitol following George Zimmerman”s acquittal in the shooting death of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin.

It wasn”t the first visit by the Dream Defenders, who are leading the sit-in and who lobbied lawmakers on juvenile-justice bills that went nowhere during the spring session.

“We were pushing for legislative initiatives like a mandatory system of diversion for misdemeanor offenses,” said Dream Defenders spokeswoman Ciara Taylor. “We were looking for a repeal of zero-tolerance policy. We were looking for a way to get our children out of adult prisons. We were looking for a way to protect them in detention facilities.

“And you were silent the entire legislative session on those bills,” Taylor told Walters. “So what exactly are you pushing that you feel is going to make a positive change?”

Taylor was referring to:

— Bills (SB 660/HB 603) that would have required law enforcement to issue civil citations to juveniles with clean records who are accused of misdemeanors. The proposal never got a hearing in either chamber.

— Bills(SB 1374/HB 1039) that would have required schools with “zero-tolerance” policies for infractions on school grounds to report to law enforcement only serious threats to school safety. The proposals, which never got a hearing in either chamber, were intended to address what the protesters call the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

— Bills (SB 506/HB 4021) that would have repealed a 2011 law allowing Florida counties to run their juvenile justice facilities. Three counties run their own juvenile facilities — Polk, Seminole and Marion — but only Polk uses pepper spray on juveniles, for which the Southern Poverty Law Center is suing Polk. The proposals never got heard.

Walters, who served on Scott”s transition team for law enforcement, became secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice partly on the strength of her success at implementing diversion programs such as civil citations when she directed the Miami-Dade Juvenile Services Department.

She told Taylor and the others that in Miami-Dade County, “95 percent of the kids who go into (the) civil citation (program) are children of color and 94 percent of them walk away without an arrest record.” That program also saved money on juvenile detention costs, and Walters had hoped to take it statewide.

But the civil citation bill was opposed by the powerful Florida Sheriffs Association.

“We also found that when you completely take away the authority and the power that a law enforcement officer has — which is the power to arrest or to warn and dismiss or something else — they will start to resist it and completely refuse,” Walters said.

Walters returned in the afternoon with data for the protesters on DJJ”s improvements over the last two years, including a 28 percent drop in school-based arrests and a 29 percent drop in first-time misdemeanor arrests.

Sixteen of Florida”s 67 counties are not using civil citations.

Although lawmakers weren”t particularly receptive to the Dream Defenders” legislative agenda in 2013, next year might be a different story.

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, is working on a bill that addresses zero tolerance for student misbehavior in public schools. The Dream Defenders have maintained that zero tolerance channels minority youths out of school and into the juvenile justice system for minor infractions.

“Zero tolerance has always been controversial,” Montford said. The policy began as a way to discourage students from bringing guns and knives to school, he said. “Schools are supposed to be an atmosphere where children can feel safe and not be subjected to inappropriate behavior that interferes with their education.”

Montford wasn”t ready to discuss the specifics of his proposal, but he said more training and more dialogue are both essential.

“Those of us who vote on these issues need to spend some real serious time in schools,” he said.

The protesters also raised questions Monday about the Florida counties that run juvenile justice facilities. Seminole and Marion haven”t been controversial, but Polk has come in for criticism for its use of pepper spray, which Sheriff Grady Judd has said protects deputes and juveniles alike

House Judiciary Chairman Dennis Baxley lives in Marion County, one of the three counties running juvenile detention facilities.

“The impression I”m getting from most of the professionals is that this is going very well, the way we”re doing it in Marion County,” said Baxley, R-Ocala. “I definitely hope we look at those counties that are having success, and make sure we are using a standard of that nature. It could be dismal if things weren”t done the right way.”

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Alexia Nechayev

FYS Events & Meeting Chair
(Palm Beach)

Hello, My name is Alexia Nechayev. I am 25 years old and I am an alumna of Florida International University where I received my B.A. in Psychology. My future career goal is to be a Lawyer. I was in care for about one year from age 17 to 18. Prior to entering care, I only knew about the negative stigma regarding foster care and while in care that narrative was unfortunately my experience.

In school I felt like I was on display because my status in care was broadcast to other students and in my placement behavior was leveraged for “privileges” that should be a natural right of all children. Because I did not know my rights I did not know that what I was experiencing was wrong. Today this is exactly why I advocate, because I don’t want this to be the same for other youth who are experiencing foster care.

This is my second year on the FYS Statewide Board and I’m happy to be the Events and Meetings Chair this year because my main goal through advocacy is to reach as many people as possible. My favorite thing as a board member is to see how comfortable members become while working together. The community needs to know that youth in foster care are real people, going through some of the hardest moments of their life and youth need to know that their voice is powerful. I believe that we have to speak up and bring these issues to people’s attention so that they do not forget us. Advocacy, education and consistency is the only way.

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