BY JEROLINE D. MCCARTHY
It was a suave affair, drawing attention to the school-to-prison pipeline that resulted in positive change. On Saturday evening, the Flagler County NAACP sponsored its Freedom Fund Banquet in Palm Coast at the exquisite Hammock Beach Resort.
The Aug. 29 event was a black-tie splash in fine dining and dancing in a remix of musical favorites by Darnel Butler & Xpressions. Opening the evening’s festivities was Freedom Fund Chairman Donald A. Matthews.
Diversely esteemed guests and sponsors listened as keynote speaker Amir Whitaker, Ed., Esq., carried them back to the thick of his childhood in Plainfield, N.J. If you had a problem with one of his 17 co-peers in middle school, you had a problem with them all!
Whitaker said that three of his peers graduated from high school, five were shot, most were involved in the adult criminal justice system, and both of Whitaker’s parents were incarcerated. He was raised by his grandparents with 14 all together residing in the home.
Two out of the 18 peers went to college, where only Whitaker earned a Bachelor of Arts in history from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., graduating cum laude with a 3.51 GPA. He holds a prestigious Phi Beta Kappa key.
The challenges would have devastated others. Whitaker was an unlikely person to achieve what he has.
He was suspended from school as early as the first grade and, at age 15, ran a crack house. He felt lost returning to school after multiple suspensions and having to play catch-up with his studies.
Despite the issues, he scored high on tests, but the schools did not recognize his grades.
Whitaker said, “I consider myself a casualty of what we call the school-to-prison pipeline, and that’s just a system where students, by virtue of the schools they are in, have increased likelihood of being in the criminal justice system.”
A turning point
An uncle set him on course to defy the odds at Whitaker’s breaking point of dropping out of school. Whitaker became his own self-advocate. He encountered a counselor, who took a look at his test scores.
She said, “We shouldn’t have done this” and apologized, saying, “You are clearly a bright student.
We should have talked to you at least, done some sort of intervention, but we shouldn’t have just kicked you out.”
That was the turning point for Whitaker to become an educator and earn a master’s in educational psychology and a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Southern California at Los Angeles, including a Juris Doctorate from the University of Miami School of Law.
The Freedom Fund journal published that Whitaker is founder/director of Project Knucklehead, a “national non-profit for at-risk youth and juvenile offenders to increase educational outcomes and reduce delinquency.”
He is an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), representing Flagler’s Black students and offering his brand to improve the school district.
In 2012, the SPLC filed a class-action complaint against five Florida school districts identifying out-of-school suspensions, and Flagler was one of the districts.
As reported in the Daytona Times, a formal complaint was filed in June by the SPLC “on behalf of three African-American students and a same-race populous of others whose education and civil rights were similarly affected.”
Key highlights of the Flagler County School Board and the SPLC landmark agreement state from the journal that: “Suspensions will be reduced by at least 70 percent, allowing students to regain thousands of hours of education.
“In the 2015-2016 school year, the previous maximum suspension of 10 days will be cut in half, so that students cannot be suspended for more than five days unless approved by the District Discipline and Behavior Coordinator.
“In 2016-2017, students cannot be suspended for more than three days without the specified district approval” – and gradually eliminating suspensions entirely.
In addition, “a community-based coalition will serve as a discipline advisory committee. This committee will monitor discipline data on a monthly basis, hold quarterly public meetings and recommend changes in disciplinary policies, including the code of conduct, to the District.”
The suave affair championed a landmark agreement of positive change.