CLEARWATER — Over the pulpit hung Jesus on a cross. Mike Grego, on Monday evening, was invited to sit on a wooden chair. The church leaders told him not to be nervous. There would be no surprises, they told the superintendent of Pinellas County Schools.
The reassurance was not unwarranted. Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST, had brought 830 people from 43 congregations together at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church to ask Grego to step up efforts to curb arrests in schools.
In 2011-12, according to the most recent state report, there were more school-related arrests in Pinellas County — 846 — than in Miami-Dade — 552 — even though Miami-Dade's enrollment is triple that of Pinellas.
The state singled out Pinellas, Orange, Volusia and Polk as large counties with high rates of school arrests per student population; Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando's arrest rates were deemed low or average.
Almost 70 percent of the school arrests in Pinellas were for misdemeanors.
"Using this as a first response only gets them an arrest record that keeps them from getting jobs for the rest of their lives," said Father John Tapp, co-founder of FAST.
Grego and his staff have recognized and taken steps to address the problem in recent months. Identifying that about 20 percent of arrests are for disruption, the district drafted a collaborative agreement with local law enforcement agencies to seek lesser options before clicking handcuffs onto children.
Comparing January 2013 with this past January, Grego said school arrests were down 52 percent.
But members of the community said they were concerned that Pinellas was doing too little. School officials had been studying a "discipline matrix" from Broward County that listed dozens of offenses and explicitly designated the punishment for everything from skipping class to arson. FAST wanted to know why Pinellas hadn't done the same.
And so on Monday evening, Grego found himself sitting on a chair in a pulpit, looking small next to the people allowed to stand beside him. The woman to his left wouldn't let him hold his own microphone.
Furthermore, Father Len Piotrowski had prepared the crowd for Grego with an eight-minute speech billed on the agenda as "Prepare for tension." He talked of private life and public life, how you want your friends to like you, but when your friends are public officials, you have to challenge them.
"Moses wasn't afraid to speak up, even though it made Pharaoh angry and created some tension," Piotrowski said.
Now it was Father John Hiers' turn. "Thank you for your courage in coming here this evening," he said. The rules were simple, Hiers told the superintendent, who now stood up. He would ask his question. Grego could say nothing but "yes" or "no."
The crowd was instructed to greet an answer of "yes" with applause. Members would respond to a "no" answer with silence.
"Will you include community groups including FAST and NAACP in conversations to create this list of offenses that do not lead to arrests and lead to alternative repercussions?" Hiers asked.
Grego, hands clasped in front as if in prayer, said, "Yes, absolutely, yes."
The room exploded. Laughter, whooping, cheers. In closing, Grego said, "I want to thank each and every one of you for believing in this community."
And in the end, they said amen.
Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).