Every day, Marterricus Thomas tries to teach his students about the value of education, but he’s found most of them no longer want to be in school.
“Most of them are thinking about how to get away with certain crimes,” Thomas, 29, said,
Twenty students are spending four to six months at AMIKids Gainesville, a school for troubled youth. In July 2019, Thomas was hired as the executive director of AMIKids Gainesville. The school has the capacity for 30 students. Currently, all of the 20 students enrolled are black. Most of the students were put on probation after spending time in a juvenile detention center, but some of them were sent to the school by a judge in teen court, Thomas said.
Despite a decrease in the total number of juvenile arrests in Alachua County, the percentage of black youths arrested by police has remained higher than the percentage of white and Hispanic youth arrests. Between 2017 and 2018, 81% of the juveniles arrested in Alachua County were black, according to data provided by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
Alachua County continues to arrest a higher percentage of black youths than the state average, according to data provided by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. Between 2017 and 2018, black youths made up 50% of all juveniles arrested in the state, but black youths made up 81% of all juveniles arrested in Alachua County.
In January 2019, the Gainesville Police Department created a juvenile justice program to help juvenile offenders get the law enforcement, court and educational services they needed. The program has included school officials and probation officers, and they meet once a week to evaluate and check the progress of the youths in the program.
According to GPD, the juvenile justice program is one of Police Chief Tony Jones’ initiatives and is designed to address all aspects of the juvenile’s case. GPD estimated that 75 young people have successfully completed the program so far. However, if they commit another crime, they are required to return to the program.
Leanetta McNealy, Alachua County School Board member for District 4, said the weekly juvenile justice meetings at GPD were an “eye-opener.”
During the first school board meeting of the year, McNealy recommended that her board colleagues attend at least one juvenile justice meeting, so the school board can address the rate at which black youths are being arrested in Alachua County.
“The majority of the students that we’re talking about look just like me,” McNealy later said in an interview with WUFT News. “There is no doubt a problem with what’s going on in society.”
Almost all of the youths in the juvenile justice program are black males, and GPD cannot fix the problem without help from education officials, McNealy said. Eventually, the district hopes to get all the students back in the classroom and in good shape, but it will take more than one person.
A study published in 2018 by the University of Florida Bureau of Economic and Business Research found that black youths in Alachua County fared worse than white and Hispanic youths in “involvement with the justice system” and education performance.
Chris Curran, director of educational leadership and policy at the University of Florida College of Education, said when students are removed from the learning environment, they lose out on class time and relationships with peers and students.
“This puts them at a disadvantage and makes them less successful,” Curran said.
AMIKids offers educational courses such as math, social studies, English and reading classes, but some of the students are often discouraged because they can only read at a third-grade level, Thomas said. Not being able to read has led to students resenting education and deciding not to return to school.
In addition, youths who have been in the juvenile justice system will find it more difficult to apply to college, Curran said. The Common Application, an undergraduate college admission application, recently removed a question asking applicants for their criminal history. But applicants still have to disclose previous school disciplinary action, decreasing their chances of being accepted into college.
Schools need to create “restorative practices,” Curran said, so students who have been in the juvenile justice system can return to school successfully. Students should rebuild relationships with their peers and teachers for a more inclusive learning environment.
As long as law enforcement and education officials continue to try and support students who are returning to school, there is hope that students who have faced disciplinary action can continue to finish their education afterwards, Curran said.
However, only a few of the students at AMIKids Gainesville have shown interest in attending college, Thomas said. The majority of the students are not looking to apply to college, so the school also offers vocational training like construction certification and food safety training.
“A lot of them have expressed interest in mechanical work: hair stylist, makeup artist, and construction,” Thomas said.
The staff at AMIKids have also taught the students skills to use while looking for a job. This includes professional etiquette and how to dress and prepare for job interviews.
Thomas, a former college athlete, has also used sports to connect with his students.
While playing a basketball game one day earlier this month, he spoke about trying to correct a misconception. Even though society has labeled them “bad kids,” he said, they are young and can still be corrected.
“I made some of the same decisions they have made when I was a teen,” Thomas said. “I didn’t take education seriously, which meant I had to spend an extra year in college.”
The students misbehave because of peer pressure, Thomas said. Most of them do not have great role models at home or in their neighborhood environment, so Thomas and their other mentors have to teach them to avoid peer pressure because it can lead them down the wrong path.
“We have to teach them good decision making,” he said, “so we can help them get away from the lifestyle of crime.”