Good Shepherd responds to God’s call to ‘do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God’ by partnering with numerous congregations in Pinellas County to listen to stories of injustice and work together to find solutions. Each year, justice ministry members commit to attending community events where we identify problems, vote on solutions, and urge our community leaders to adopt these solutions. In the past, our justice ministry has gotten better jobs training, all day preschool for low wage workers, and most recently, $100 million dollars for affordable housing in our county.
2023 Nehemiah Action
On March 27th, 27 members and friends of our congregation’s justice ministry gathered at Indian Rocks Baptist Church along with over a thousand other people of faith across different Pinellas County denominations to do the work of biblical justice: calling on elected officials to make our community a fair and safe place to live for all of God’s people. The officials present agreed to take action on the declining water quality issues in our community, and to work towards changing rules that end up causing thousands of unnecessary arrests of people who make minor, non-dangerous mistakes like unknowingly driving with a suspended license. In fact, two elected officials even shared their own family stories about how their lives were impacted by these laws. Our community’s elected officials are used to hearing from special interest groups with lobbyists and large budgets, but this time, people showed up armed with faith and their own stories. Everyone who came out helped steer our county in a more faithful direction. You can read an article about the event in the Tampa Bay Times.
Fall 2022 Justice Ministry Begins
As the fall begins again, so does our countywide justice ministry. We’ll soon be gathering for our ‘house meetings,’ and we welcome Greg Stout as a new team leader. Let Greg tell you more about our ministry…
Dear fellow Good Shepherd Members,
About a year ago I found out that Good Shepherd has a Justice Ministry and I was asked to join the Justice team and attend a Zoom meeting. I had not known that we had a Justice Ministry. After participating this first year, Pastor Keith has asked me to become more involved in our Justice Ministry, and I would like to share some insight I have come to know about what this important mission is all about.
The Good Shepherd Justice team is one of the teams that belong to a Pinellas County-wide organization called FAST—which stands for Faith & Action for Strength Together. FAST has several paid employees called “organizers” in an office in St. Petersburg and there are around 50 congregations of many different denominations and faiths in Pinellas County.
FAST is part of a large national Justice Ministry called DART: Direct Action & Research Training. DART was started 42 years ago in Miami and is now in 10 states, mostly in the south and mid-west. DART has done amazing things all over the country. I recently attended their national convention in Orlando and came back with incredible information and inspiration. I had never realized that our Bible is full of scriptures that call us to Justice. Some examples:
Isaiah 1:17: Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.
Zechariah 7:9: This is what the Lord Almighty said: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.
Proverbs 31:8-9: Open your mouth, judge righteously; maintain the rights of the poor and needy.
One of the wonderful speakers at the convention defined Justice as “the act of sorting out what belongs to whom and returning it to them”. After attending this very informative and moving presentation, I realize now that working for justice has been commanded to us by God. Since much injustice is caused by greed, it is hard to work against it without large sums of money. The very well-organized DART organization works for justice with large numbersof people publicly calling on our elected officials to be accountable.
Our local FAST Justice group has made some wonderful changes in Pinellas County in the last few years. We have gotten the Pinellas County Sherriff to start using “civil citations” for children instead of arresting them (previously 250-300 children were arrested per year and had a permanent felony on their records). In the past several years we got the St. Petersburg City Council to commit $15 million, and the County to commit $85 million for affordable housing. This happened by large numbers of people showing their support for these projects.
We would like to have two Justice teams at Good Shepherd. Pastor Keith and Leslie will continue to be the Team Leaders for one, and I will be the Team Leader for the other. Our goal is to have ten team members on each team. There is NOT a lot of time commitment for team members—only 3–4 functions per year. There are some organizational meetings in the fall, then after the year’s project is selected, there is a large group meeting to approve it. The most important meeting is called the Nehemiah Action in the spring, where we ask all team members to attend and bring three friends, so that there can be a very large crowd to witness the decision makers being publicly asked to agree to our Justice request. The amazing success of the entire DART organization shows that you don’t need tons of money to stop injustice, just people of faith working together.
In the next few weeks we will be hosting some “Home meetings” to explain how the FAST Justice ministry at Good Shepherd works and what is involved. I ask you to read some of the scriptures about Justice and come to a meeting to see how you can help in our struggle toward Justice in our community.
Thank you and God Bless!
2020 Youth Suspensions And Arrests Committee Update
For many years, the Pinellas County School District used a “zero tolerance” policy of discipline which focuses on immediately punishing misbehavior with referrals, suspensions, or arrests. Unfortunately, this does not work. Sending children out of the classroom does not improve their behavior and causes them to instead fall behind on schoolwork.
Over the last few years, the district has taken steps to move away from “zero tolerance” discipline in the classroom. However, stories we heard in house meetings from both families and teachers indicated that the policies embraced by the district were not fully implemented or fully addressing the problem. Reports indicated that children were still experiencing out of control classrooms, while teachers shared that they were not receiving proper training and support from the district. We know that even one out-of-school suspension doubles a child’s chance of dropping out of school1. Additionally, black students in Pinellas County schools have historically been more likely to receive a suspension than white students.
Other school districts have been able to decrease suspensions and arrests by moving away from zero-tolerance policies. One of the most successful approaches has been “restorative practices” which focus on restoring trust and communication in schools, while holding misbehaving students accountable to victims and their peers. In schools that have done full implementations of restorative practices, the suspension and arrest levels have significantly decreased, and racial gaps in discipline have also decreased. Additionally, teachers report feeling safer and teacher turnover has gone down.
In response to our concerns, over the past few years, Pinellas County Schools have embraced restorative practices and rolled it out to all 123 schools. The district worked with the highly experienced International Institute of Restorative Practices (IIRP) to train school staff in Sept of 2018. However, despite an optimistic start, its implementation over the 2019 school year proved to be inadequate. Due to the lack of a comprehensive roll-out of RP, reports showed inadequate training available (and that the training was not being provided by experts like IIRP,) a lack of support for teachers in the classroom, and a lack of comprehensive and cohesive discipline for students across schools.
Through talking to the experts at IIRP and researching other school districts implementing RP, we identified four missing and critical pieces necessary for RP implementation to be a success. Those four missing pieces included: 1. Restorative Justice Conferencing, which is an intervention for children who commit serious behavioral infractions; 2. Monthly coaching for teachers and staff attempting to use restorative practices in their classrooms; 3. An expert- like IIRP – must conduct training for all teachers and staff before the start of the school year; and, 4. A clear evaluation plan that sets standards for implementation and outcomes, and that incorporates a detailed process for collecting data.
Over the course of the past year, we met with School Board members, PCS Staff, our allies at the Teachers Union and other community organizations to pressure the District to fully implement Restorative Practices in our schools. And we have recently seen the results of this hard work! On August 25th, 2020, we watched as the School Board voted to approve a $450,000 contract with IIRP – the experts – for a contract that includes nearly everything we have recommended and asked for! The contract includes:
- Restorative Practices training, provided by the experts at IIRP, for all schools.
- Restorative Justice Conferencing training for a cohort of schools.
- And, additional monthly coaching, by experts, for that cohort of 20 schools.
The District has also assured us that an evaluation process will be created, with the establishment of measurable outcomes.We are encouraged by this VICTORY and are grateful for the district’s commitment to this issue! We are also especially excited to celebrate the inclusion of Restorative Justice Conferencing as part of the implementation plan for the coming year and look forward to seeing the results in our schools and for the schoolchildren of Pinellas County. With this victory, the Youth Suspensions and Arrests committee made the recommendation at the October committee meeting to move “into monitoring.” This recommendation was approved, and we have already received commitments from the District for 8 meetings throughout the year to ensure that proper monitoring of this issue is accomplished.
We applaud the School Board members and staff who have been advocating for and leading the efforts on Restorative Practices here in Pinellas. We look forward to the tremendous impact of monthly coaching for teachers, and the promise of the development of a thorough evaluation plan in the coming year.
The Youth Suspensions and Arrests Committee is committed to following up on and monitoring this to see the results of full implementation of Restorative Practices in our district. We are also excited to see the results of fully implemented RP in Pinellas County – the results of the tireless and persistent work of FAST membership.