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  1. Florida Politics

Florida's head of juvenile justice meets with protesters

Published Jul. 23, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — The head of Florida's juvenile justice department cleared her calendar Monday to meet with the young activists camped outside Gov. Rick Scott's office.

Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters spent the morning and early afternoon fielding questions from the group — and discussing the steps her agency is taking to prevent young people from entering the criminal justice system.

But the activists, known as the Dream Defenders, held firm on their pledge to stay in the Capitol until Scott convenes a special session of the Florida Legislature. They want lawmakers to create a Trayvon Martin Civil Rights Act, which would repeal the controversial "stand your ground" law, end racial profiling and remove zero tolerance policies from schools.

"We're happy to engage in dialogue," Dream Defenders co-founder Gabriel Pendas told Walters. "But we don't need any more talk. We need action."

The Dream Defenders also blasted the governor for not holding a public event Sunday, despite calling for a statewide day of prayer and unity.

"It seems like the day of prayer was just lip service," spokesman Steven Pargett said.

But Melissa Sellers, a spokeswoman for Scott, said the governor spent Sunday morning at Bible Based Church in Tallahassee.

"It was his personal time of worship," she said.

Sellers said Scott had participated in a conference call with 35 faith-based leaders on Friday. He asked each to include a call for peace and unity in their Sunday sermons.

The Dream Defenders, a coalition of college students and young professionals from around the state, have spent the past seven days and six nights outside Scott's office. Their sit-in demonstration is a response to George Zimmerman's recent acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager.

Scott has made it clear he will not convene a special session.

He directed Walters to speak with the group on Monday.

During an informal meeting outside Scott's office, the student activists told Walters that "zero tolerance" policies in schools were leading to too many suspensions and arrests. Young people, they said, deserve second chances — especially when one mistake might cause them to get tied up in the criminal justice system.

"I am not a supporter of zero tolerance," Walters replied. "I think when you work with kids, things should be handled on a case-by-case basis."

The young activists also spoke out against incarcerating adults and children in the same facility.

"We need to change the culture," Pendas said.

Walters said her department was working on solutions. "Everyday, we are working on the issues you are all talking about," she said. "I'd venture to say we've made more strides than any other state in the union."

But the Dream Defenders wanted concrete action plans. So late Monday, they hunkered down for another night in the Capitol.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

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