The Center for Ethics and Public Service (CEPS) at Miami Law and the Education Advocacy Clinic at Florida International University (FIU) have joined forces to develop the Education Rights Initiative – a collaborative clinical effort aimed at training law students about education advocacy.
Anthony V. Alfieri, professor of law and director of CEPS, along with Laverne Pinkney, visiting assistant clinical professor at FIU's College of Law, have kicked off a two-credit class to focus on antipoverty research, advocacy, rights education and community outreach. During the 2011-2012 academic year, the two schools will also jointly host "Rights to Education" workshops to help parents be better advocates for their children.
CEPS proposed the partnership, a first for the two law schools, after being presented with a community project mandate by the Coconut Grove Ministerial Alliance, a coalition of Historic Black Churches in the West Grove. Over the years, CEPS and the local pastors have cultivated a relationship to preserve and research the cultural and social history of the West Grove, which was settled by Bahamian laborers more than 100 years ago.
"Beyond economic development, beyond immigration or issues about health, inner city Miami communities want to focus on education," Alfieri said about the church leaders who have regularly expressed their concern about the youth in their community. In the late 1960s, the West Grove transformed: the rich left, the poor stayed and drug activity became the new norm.
In the current midst of a rebound, West Grove community leaders have put their hope in educating the youth and expanding their opportunities beyond their front porch. However, for many poor neighborhoods, the Miami-Dade public education system (the largest in the state and fourth largest in the nation) has become a hindrance rather than a means upward.
A controversial zero-tolerance law that was developed in 1997 gave Florida public school teachers and administrators the power to refer elementary, middle and high school students to the juvenile delinquent system for misconduct. Many people have criticized the law for being too harsh.
"The school-to-prison pipeline poses the most important civil rights and poverty law crisis since the desegregation of public schools in Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954," Alfieri said.
Between the years of 2004 and 2005, more than 28,000 students were arrested for misconduct. This information, published in a study by the American Civil Liberties Union, also states that 63 percent of the referrals were for misdemeanor offenses. The Florida Legislature amended the law in 2009 to dissuade schools from using the jail system for petty cases.
Despite the amendment, Pinkney said students are still being referred to jail for issues that could be handled at the school. These actions have lasting effects. An arrest can follow a student throughout his or her lifetime.
Though the workshops, Miami Law and FIU are working to equip parents with the tools they need to help their children stay in school and out of jail.
"Sometimes parents become frustrated because they don't understand the system or don't know how to navigate the system. So, they give up," Pinkney said. "Knowledge is power."