I have been advocating for students with disabilities in the school system since 2004 when I first started speaking out on behalf of my son. Since that time, while I feel I have been successful in improving the situations of the students I represent most of the time, I realized early on that the implementation of many state and federal laws is not consistent with the original intent of protecting student rights and increasing opportunities for all students to succeed.
In addition to my practice, I have taken on many volunteer roles on non-profit boards and committees as well as advisory positions with state and local educational agencies, all with the goal of trying to address the barriers to achieving positive outcomes. Some of the organizations have allowed me to represent them in meeting with legislators and elected boards to advocate for and against proposed legislation and share the organizations' policy positions. On my own time, I write op-eds and essays on issues that I feel are essential for the population I am serving. But I haven't felt like I am doing enough. I haven't had time to do the follow-up and outreach that would allow these efforts to be truly effective.
The passage of a series of omnibus bills over the last five years in the Florida legislature has made me feel that more must be done in the policy arena to protect students with disabilities; students who are English learners; students who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC); and those who come from other disadvantaged backgrounds. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionately harming the most vulnerable students and their families, many of whom are the most at risk of serious illness or death if they become infected. These students are losing skills acquisition at a rate that may have long-term effects on their growth academically, socially and emotionally, and in all aspects of their education. We can't wait to address all of these issues, and we can't afford to act in a piecemeal fashion in our spare time anymore.
For this reason, I am pursuing a policy project aimed at one of the biggest issues I have seen in my years of practice: disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline (STPP). Too many of the students I serve face suspensions, expulsions, threat assessments that follow them for the rest of their academic careers, arrests, Baker Acts (involuntary mental health confinement and assessment), restraint and seclusion. For every case that I take, I know thousands of students do not have access to advocates and whose families or caretakers do not know where to turn. If we eliminated or changed some of the problematic laws that have been passed, and facilitate the passage of new laws that address needs that have never been met, we can significantly derail the STPP and give all students a real opportunity to realize their potential.
The project I am working on includes several key components:
Filling gaps in existing research on the factors involved in the STPP and sharing the body of research with policymakers and the public to help inform decisionmaking on the sensitive issues behind the STPP, including of school safety, appropriate education, equity, discrimination, social and environmental factors that hinder student performance, among others.
Communicating information about the STPP to a wide variety of platforms, from parent/caregiver training about their rights, to op-eds and articles in the media, to presentations before professionals.
Empowering vulnerable students and their families to share their stories with the public and policymakers so that everyone truly understands what is currently happening and how it affects our youth. I can step up on a soapbox and talk all I want about the issues, but allowing someone who has lived the experience to tell it is so much more compelling and influential.
Promoting knowledge of Restorative Justice processes and encouraging Restorative Justice practice in schools and communities around Florida.
Building upon existing coalitions of stakeholders working on STPP issues to create a powerful platform and a unified voice that will exert more influence than speaking out from individual silos.
I encourage everyone who cares about any of these issues to join me in this work.