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Lee High Students Reflect On Speaking At Senate Hearing, White House Briefing

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Lee High School EVAC Class
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U.S. Representative John Lewis (far left), who marched with Martin Luther King Jr, speaks to Lee High students including Dequan Jackson (far right) who was recently featured in the New York Times.

Students from Jacksonville’s Lee High School attended a hearing at the U.S. Senate and a briefing at the White House last week.

The leadership class is hoping to help change how young people experience the juvenile justice system.

The students went to D.C. to support classmate Dequan Jackson, who was asked to speak at the hearing. Jackson was featured in a New York Times article, “Court Costs Entrap Nonwhite, Poor Juvenile Offenders.”

The story details Dequan being charged with battery at age 13 and his family not being able to pay a couple hundred dollars in court costs, which further upped his fees and prolonged his probation. Now at age 16, he still owes nearly $900.

Junior Tremaine Wingfield said watching his classmate Dequan speak in front of the Senate was inspiring. Tremaine said he too is growing up without much money.

”I came from when we didn’t have any air conditioner and we had to use cold water, that’s where I came from,” he said. “He’s like me, he also came from the bottom just like me. Seeing somebody speak in front of people like that, it makes it seem like I can do that too.”

On Friday Lee High teacher Amy Donofrio organized an event for her students to share their experience from D.C. with local media. During class she played music by J. Cole and asked the students to write down their reflections on the trip.

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Credit Lee High School EVAC class
At Lee High School, Amy Donofiro's leadership students raise their hands confirming meeting Civil Rights leader U.S. Representative John Lewis was the highlight of their D.C. trip.

When they begin sharing, it was clear everyone was most excited to meet U.S. Representative John Lewis, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr.

“He told us not to give up,” Tremaine said. “Somebody who actually did this and actually is famous for that and then he’s high in power. It was very inspiring to hear somebody tell me that.”

Tremaine said his class wants to affect policy change in the juvenile justice system. And while on the D.C. trip, the entire class met with Department of Justice representatives at a White House briefing. Tremaine said they shared their personal stories of where they see problems with the system.

Most of the students were in Donofrio’s leadership class last year. In a poll of the class last year, more than half of them have been detained by police at some point, many have had family members murdered.

The group calls themselves EVAC, Cave spelled backward. Tremaine explained EVAC as “bringing people out of the dark,” specifically teens like them normally defined as “at-risk.”

Last year the class brought leaders to their classroom — police officers, city officials, prosecutors, judges — to learn, but also educate the authority figures on young people, and what they’d like to see change.

Donofrio asked her students  brainstorm about what to do next and to think “crazy,” no goal is too big. She scribbled down the classes ideas, the white board filling up in a matter of minutes. Among the suggestions were writing a book of their stories and trying to meet President Barack Obama.

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Credit Lee High School EVAC class
Amy Donofrio jots down a list of what her leadership students hope to accomplish this school year.

Jackson, who spoke at the Senate hearing, said most of all, they want other young people to keep up hope.

“What we mean by hope is, once something happens, you keep pushing so it’s not over,” Jackson said. “That’s what we mean by hope — believe that you can still do something with your life.”

The students said they plan to ask State Attorney-elect Melissa Nelson to consider meeting with them regularly.

Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at lkilbride@wjct.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.