Students in Jacksonville’s Lee High leadership class met with State Attorney Melissa Nelson Tuesday afternoon.
The students have already met with Nelson once before and they’ve been meeting with many city leaders about juvenile justice reform for about two years.
The students stepped off of a school bus in front of the Nelson’s downtown office downtown wearing black shirts with EVAC printed across the front. They call what they’re doing the EVAC Movement, cave spelled backward and short for evacuating from the dark.
After a tour, the 11 Lee High boys sat around a table with Nelson and several of her attorneys. Their teacher Amy Donofrio said there’s a lot of planning before these meetings.
“They want officials to feel some of the feelings that they’ve experienced and that their loved ones have experienced so they can realize the weight of some of the decisions being made,” Donofrio said.
Donofrio asked the teens to answer some personal questions: if they have a family member in jail, if they’ve been detained by police and if they’ve seen shootings. In all cases hands went up.
Some students said when young people can’t find jobs, making money illegally could be the only option for teens who need to help their families.
An attorney at the table responded that students can’t justify those actions with excuses, but Donofrio pushed back and said adults also need to own when they’ve let down young people.
“I think as long as officials are willing to come to the table and have that discussion, it’s OK for us to push back against each other a little bit then progress is being made and I have a lot of hope for where that can go,” she said after the meeting.
The students and Donofrio asked Nelson about how the office approaches juvenile arrests.
Nelson and her colleagues said with any juvenile arrested, the office does look into each child’s circumstances to determine how they’re charged.
For example, Nelson’s chief assistant Hutton delivered students the news that one of their former classmates, who was arrested on an armed robbery charge, will be tried as a juvenile.
“We’re always trying to give people second chances,” Hutton said.
Eleventh-grader Tyree King, who used to have class with him, said that was relieving to hear.
King said, for him, the leadership class has caused him to resist peer pressure and encourage his friends to rethink breaking the law in some cases.
“My voice really can change a lot of people,” he said of one instance when his friends were going to participate in illegal activity.
Nelson said the students’ influence is one reason she and her team are asking the students to help with their juvenile diversion programs. King said that shows him the office is interested in learning from his class.
“I can tell that they’re really believing what we have to say and they’re really understanding,” King said. “We’re really excited. We can’t wait to partner with them.”
Nelson also asked the students to attend a dialogue on race and trust between law enforcement and the community being led by the FBI.
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Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.