Tuesday, October 28, 2014

As I conduct my research in preparation to speak to the school board...

I find myself with less time to write about the meeting in which I was told there are zero activities in which I can participate at school as a non-Dividend and the silly runaround of emails it took to get them to actually summarize the discussion afterwards via email.  It was actually kind of comical. One of these days I may get time to write about it in detail.

In the meantime, I thought of an easy way to keep posting and having things for people to consider while I am in this research phase....

Each post, I plan to share one or two (or maybe more, depends how much time I get each day) of the recommendation letters I submitted with my application this year. These are from real people and parents in Seminole County who know me and who (like me) think it is phenomenally stupid that I am on the "not good enough" list to volunteer at my childrens' schools.

Here are a few to start us off...there are plenty, which is why I plan to just post a few at a time. These were either; 1.Never actually read at all, or 2.Read and completely disregarded as insight into my character.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Am I good enough?

Don't we all wonder that?  Apparently I am lucky enough to live in a county where I can be judged and then told whether or not I am, in fact, "good enough".

Tuesday I was given the honor of being reviewed by the “Professional Standards Committee”

What that is, isn’t made exactly clear, except that it is apparently the group of people that get to judge whether or not parents are good enough to be volunteers at the school. 

I was given a perfunctory phone call in which I was told the committee was reviewing my application, but I do not think they were going to tell me I had to be there if I hadn’t asked.

There is no link for the committee on the county website. There is no listing under staff for this department, a posting of their policies, or even a mission statement.  And why I was not granted the ability to speak to them LAST year when I begged the dividend program members, the school board, the superintendent, and everyone I was redirected to in between for appeal or review? 

The policy currently posted on the website (which was NOT posted last year, in case you were wondering) is the same policy they supposedly followed last year.  I can’t be sure since that policy was not posted last year but IF that is the case and the policy is unchanged, then where was my Professional Standards Committee Review last year?? 

Surprisingly, I was one of three women there. One was applying to be a teacher and one to be a dividend.

It was mentioned before the review that all decisions by the committee were final. Yeah, I don’t think so.  When they tell me no, that is just the beginning of the plans I have been waiting all summer to set into motion. Not an end, by a long shot.  It was cute that they tried though. I laughed in my head.
They started their meeting about 10 minutes late (not very "Professional" if you ask me) and I sat for an additional hour before it was my turn for scrutiny.  I may have been outside the room, and I may not have been given the names of those who judged me, but I have ears and I DID hear a man say "Look at me, I'm a hardened criminal!" In what context it was used, I don't know.  But it was heard.

I brought quite a sizeable stack of recommendation letters (thank you ALL) many of which are from moms in Seminole County and some who had children at my daughter’s school and even in her class last year and some printouts of the various endeavors that I currently do, which include a litter pick up team in my neighborhood, fostering baby animals, raising chickens, painting and interior design, and sewing.  I explained that the only way I could think to show them that I am different than the person who got arrested twelve years ago was to simply show them the things that I spend my time doing. 

And that’s it. I waited all day for a phone call and didn’t get one. I was told I could call the next morning so I did, and got voicemail.  This morning I called again and was told that my application was denied (big surprise there) so now I can move ahead with my plans to address the school board.

I wish I didn’t have to waste time on steps that I already know the outcome of. Got to love bureaucracy.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The school year is about to begin

The summer is easy. I'm a very motivated and energetic person, so I was able to find/create some volunteer opportunities for the girls and I that were pretty fun. We began the summer fostering a litter of puppies that needed extra special attention (I used to be a veterinary technician so I was able to use those skills to save 5 little dog lives <3)

We only managed one Litter Bug Patrol trash pick up event this summer, but at least we got that one in there. We just go out as a family with our gloves and trash bags and pick a section of street in our neighborhood where we pick up all the trash we can find.  Our first event ever (during last spring break, I believe) we found like 10 tractor tires, a television, a few rolls of carpet, street signs, and several garbage bags full of beer bottles.

We finished off the summer by fostering a litter of tiny orange kittens. I currently have four orange balls of fluff running around my office and bringing joy to every member of my family every day.

Now the time has come to sort through clothes, gather supplies, and meet teachers.

I'm sure everyone has a certain level of anxiety when it comes to meeting new people.  Starting a new school and meeting a bunch of new people is already kind of overwhelming.  Then I have to add a whole extra layer to my anxiety when I wonder what people will think when they learn of my past and my inability to officially volunteer at the school when they, inevitably, find out. Because I can't be myself and eager to help and participate and NOT have it come up, because until the county approves me there are only certain things I can do.

I have to say that there was a group of ladies at last year's school (I certainly hope you know who you are) who went out of their way to make me feel welcome after the school itself made me feel quite the opposite. And I hope it isn't too early to say that I THINK I may have gotten lucky again this year.  School doesn't start until next week and I have already helped out once, and I already see opportunities where I am welcome and excited to help out, and we've already crossed that bridge where I have to tell them all why I can only help with certain tasks.  And you know what? Nobody looked at me like I had three heads or anything like that, so I think we're going to be ok!

Some days are better than others. Today was a good day.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

If I can be a better me, I won’t be afraid

I know some of you have been waiting anxiously for me to dispel some of the misconceptions tossed out there by a few closed-minded individuals.

For those of you offering positive feedback, and even for those of you who have disagreed or asked me questions but did so as one human talking to another – thank you. For the rest of you, well, maybe I would have been open to a conversation with you if you hadn’t started off with insults.  One can disagree without being rude.  And for a very small percentage of you who took “rude” to an extra special place, and whom I would truly not waste the time to address, except that people have asked me what I am going to say to you….which is, “Troll much?”
Where do we draw the line?
There already IS a line. There is already a team of people judging parents by their past, and already a set of guidelines they follow to do so. Many of the charges listed in the guidelines have exceptions if 5 or 10 years have passed, and I believe that is where people with histories of my nature (nonviolent offenders with no arrests in over a decade) also belong. Not on the list of offenders that are restricted from volunteering in their own child's classroom for the rest of their lives.

Here is the thing…ALL of those offenses I listed in the sentence above are VIOLENT offenders. They are a different category of people than non-violent offenders. Quite honestly part of my decision to speak out was my frustration at being lumped into the same category. I do not belong on the same banishment list as a sex offender. That is nonsense. 

I did not hold anyone at gun or knife point. I didn’t hurt, injure, maim, kill, or kidnap any children (or adults for that matter, I didn’t do these things to ANYone).  I didn’t beat up anyone’s grandma or rape anyone or rob any stores or banks or people.

I am not saying that it was not a completely idiotic thing to do, because clearly I know now that it was, but I simply introduced two people to one another; one person with drugs and one person that wanted drugs (who was apparently being set up by an informant). I honestly had no idea that was a felony offense.  I have heard many times over the years that a “decent” attorney (read: if I had money for a real attorney and not a 3rd string public defender at the time) could have gotten my charge reduced and I would have ended up found guilty of a different charge. Whether or not that would have happened, I may never know.  And that’s ok, I guess.  I accepted my small amount of participation as horrible a long time ago, and decided I can just try to be the best me that I can moving forward. You know? I just try not let it get me down or make me think that I should return to that lifestyle since that is what judgmental people expect of me anyway.  Because ultimately who I am is not up to them, it is up to me.

I served a year in county jail (not prison, there IS a difference) and 3 years of probation.

It was the first and last time I have gotten in trouble, I think I cried for the whole first week in there (contrary to my own preconceived notion, nobody tried to beat me up or even give me a hard time for that, but I digress). I have had zero subsequent arrests since 2002.

Habitual offenders don’t go more than a decade between arrests. I am not one of those either.

I am not a bomber, a bank robber, or even a drug dealer.

I’m just a mom with an exuberant 6 year old girl who absolutely loves learning.

When I was arrested, I did NOT think about how this would affect my children (Sadly, I think it is pretty safe to say I wasn’t thinking much at all at the time). I did NOT think it would affect my ability to participate at my daughter’s school when she was born 6 years ago.  I did not even think it would affect my ability to participate in her school LAST year, when she began pre-k and this very same county let me participate and help with the class.  It was only this year, when she began kindergarten, it has become an issue.

The laws on what constitutes a felony and the laws governing when someone is forgiven for a felony vary widely from state to state. I would LOVE to expunge, seal, or pardon my record and in many other states that would have already been granted.  I am working on that.

I am extremely grateful for all of the positive support. It is not easy to stand up and say I was this person when I was younger, but I feel like it is better to be open about it than to try and pretend it never happened.  Some would probably prefer I beat myself up forever, but I can’t work towards a better future if I just sit around and focus on my past.  What kind of example would that set for my kids?
I am extremely happy that this conversation has been started. I think it is important that the effects of laws against non-violent felons, the various difficulties they face trying to function as a productive member of society, and the challenges in having their rights restored are talked about, and not swept under the rug.

I feel this way even more strongly after hearing from so many parents, both locally and across the country, that are struggling with similar estrangement issues. Many with charges far less offensive than my own.  It helps, knowing you’re there, and knowing that I’m not alone.  I am overwhelmed by how much of the feedback continues to be positive, and I am grateful for the continued support.  Thank you.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The things we do for love.....

There was a room parent meeting for me this morning. I always have to fight back anxiety and force myself to go. It has, at times, made me physically ill. I often worry that they will tell me I am not allowed to be a room parent anymore since I have been so far unable to successfully appeal the dividend office's decision to refuse my volunteer application (because of one arrest from 12 years ago that has NOTHING to do with children, but I digress....).

At the second room parent meeting for the year, the room parents turned me away, since I wasn't on the approved dividend list (this was NOT their fault, they are just following the rules and checking off names on a list, it isn't THEIR fault I was not selected as an "approved" parent), and my name happened to have a ------- line through where I was supposed to sign in.
I was hurt and confused, because at the end of the first meeting I had met with the principal and explained that my application had been denied and that I was attempting to appeal that decision. She gave me permission to perform all the functions of being a room parent that did not require direct interaction with children. I remember leaving the meeting when I was turned away, tears streaming down my face as I made my way to the parking lot and found my van. I am glad I took those few extra minutes to compose myself before driving, since I managed to strengthen my resolve and go back in to the receptionist (which was by far one of the hardest things I have done, and I have walked in to a courtroom knowing I wasn't coming back out the front door, and that I wouldn't see freedom for 1-3 years, and this was harder). The receptionist found the principal, who then escorted me quietly and discreetly to the meeting.

I remember how totally normal that meeting ended up being, and how glad I was that I had squashed down my tears and my urge to run away, and gone back to the meeting. I am also eternally grateful for how kind and understanding every parent that I have eventually told about my situation has been. Clearly, I had to explain to the moms running the room parent meeting what had happened. They have been exceptional at making me feel like a regular part of the group.

Every meeting since then, there has been a ----------- line next to my daughter's teacher's name, through the spot where I would need to sign in to the meeting.  I've never been turned away again, but as far as the paperwork is concerned, I was never there.....and I know that is hardly a huge deal in the grand scheme of things, but it often feels as if someone in that school is going to great lengths to make sure that "unapproved" parents don't feel too welcome.  One of the moms this morning told me that she was afraid I had quit when she saw the line where my name went. I didn't bother telling her how many times I had almost done just that.

I also heard that they are talking about just completely getting rid of parents having lunch with students at all next year.  I now feel a need to apologize to my fellow room moms (and any parents that regularly join their child for lunch now), since that is likely my fault, and a result of the school being (hopefully) unable to make me sit outside for lunch next year after I drew some attention to their newsletter post on the subject.  I guess they are thinking if they can't separate the riff raff,  then just ban lunch for everyone!

I email myself my 2 hours of volunteer time for attending the meeting. I can't log in to the volunteer system so the school doesn't get to count my hours as a volunteer. I email them to myself in the hopes that someday I will get approved, and then all my hours will count too.

 it's time for me to go tie-dye 18 t-shirts for the field trip to the zoo that I won't get to go on after Spring Break, and then we get to start planning for teacher appreciation week and the end of the year party (that I also won't get to attend).  I suppose I could stop torturing myself, but part of turning my life around involves following through on things I sign up for so I consider myself stuck in this obligation until at least the end of this year.  That and I am going to be as involved as they will possibly let me because I love my little girl, I thought I was going to get to be part of her school's community, and it breaks my heart that I can't just function as a normal mom there.
I can honestly say I think they have successfully taken enough wind out of my sails to make sure I don't volunteer for much next year. That's sad. How many other parents have they deflated in this way? It is so hard to stay pumped up to help in the face of so many hurdles to prevent involvement!
 If the parents struggle to stay excited, motivated, and involved about their education, how will the kids stay excited, motivated, and involved?

On that note, I will end today's rant.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Lunch with someone you love

I love that my daughter's school does this! I was so excited to do things like go visit my little girl for lunch.  That was before I learned I cannot be an approved dividend. At the beginning of the school year, the rule was that you had to be a dividend in order to visit your child for lunch.

When I learned I wasn't going to be approved, at least not anytime soon, I told the dividend department that the school said I needed to be a dividend to join my child for lunch, and that wasn't fair to tell me I couldn't do that.

A week or so later there was an automated call from the school, letting parents know that the rule was being amended, and you no longer needed to be a dividend to join your child for lunch.
Awesome. :)

The first lunch went ok. They half-heartedly attempted to have all the kids with adults sit at the regular class table, but all at one end, and all the kids without parents at the other end.
Needless to say, that was a disorganized kind of mess. For one thing, all the kids with parents there are excited to show them off, and all the kids without parents there are curious to see their friends parents and say hello. Several of my daughter's friends said hi to me and I politely said hello back. I'm always afraid to say anything more, as if I will get in trouble for having a simple conversation. Often they show me part of their lunch, and I say something like "Goldfish. Cool. I like Goldfish. They're yummy."

I'd also like to mention that the cafeteria is lined with teachers and approved volunteers, so it isn't like anyone is alone with anyone else's kids. Ever.

About two weeks ago, we got the flyer for the next "Lunch with someone you love" so I filled it out and sent it in. A week later, we saw this in the school newsletter:

Wow. Ok, so next year I can still go to lunch but I have to sit outside? And the other parents can join me outside if they want to, or they can sit inside with all the other "good" parents if they want.

I certainly hope this school is not allowed to move forward with such a blatantly segregating rule.

So after that I got to go to lunch with my little girl yesterday. I just want to say that I do understand what they are trying to do, and I do appreciate the efforts to keep our schools "safe" but I don't think there is a way to keep the "riff raff" like myself separate from the general population of parents without creating some very unfair, biased, discriminatory, and outdated rules.

This time they split the cafeteria in half. Kids that had someone they loved there got to sit in one half of the cafeteria and the kids who didn't have anyone who loved them there got to sit in the other half of the cafeteria and watch the kids who had guests from afar. I will say that seems more fair than making me (and other parents that don't meet the strict criteria to be a volunteer) sit outside. But I did feel bad for the kids sitting alone, staring longingly at the "Lunch with someone you love" tables. Because you see, when we volunteer at a school, it is not just our own children who might benefit. It is also those children who DON'T have someone who cares enough to invest their time or energy. The kid who can be so positively affected by just a few kind words of encouragement and a smile. Those kids that are like I was when I was a kid. I want so much to be able to give back to my community like what so many volunteers did for me when nobody from my house could be bothered to care.

Overall, it was a better day than I had hoped. They didn't try to make me sit outside, my daughters' friends' parents treat me normally as far as I can tell. :) And most of all, my daughter seems to be unaffected by any of this nonsense that is my volunteer status and happy with her school and her friends. For that, I am grateful.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Some days I want to cry

That is a lie. Some days I come back from an emotionally draining experience at my child's school to fall on my couch and sob uncontrollably.

I just wanted to be treated like a human being and like a parent, because I am both of these things.

Days like this almost make me want to give up. To just give in to the sadness and the sobbing and say "Alright, you win. I will sit my pathetic loser felon ass here on my couch and butt out and not come to the school unless it is absolutely necessary and required that I am there."

Today, it's not even my dividend status. And so it has me wondering if I even picked the right school. Luckily we get to choose from three schools so I'll probably look into some specific policies at the two schools I did not pick and see if they are more inviting to parents (regardless of dividend status) than the one we are at currently. Because I don't know if I want my child at a school that discourages parents from walking their child to class or running an item to the doorway of a classroom. I think that I am not okay with this. And as relieved as I was to learn that it was not MY specific dividend status that was the issue today, it kind of made me MORE concerned to hear it was a blanket policy that applied to everyone. I think I may have been less upset to hear this was just because it was me, the felon, the parent who is NOT an approved dividend.....

"Most parents bring them to lunch" they said. Ok, that's great, but I don't want my kid eating her cupcake for her lunch, and I don't know how happy the other parents would be about that either. The cupcakes I was dropping off were for their snack, later in the day, well after lunch. And yeah, I can and will approach it differently next year, but maybe if I write it down someone will eventually pay attention to these policies that don't really sound like they were written while thinking about kids and parents as human beings.  This is not my dog that I dropped off at a kennel for supervision, this is my child that is supposed to be coming to a place of learning. Only now I wonder, what IS she learning, exactly.....?

Shouldn't ANY parent feel like they can walk in to the school at any time and see their child IN the classroom setting? Even without a reason? Shouldn't ANY parent feel they have a right to walk to the classroom and hand snacks or supplies directly to the teacher? Should there ever be a time that a parent is prohibited from these things?  Is it really more disruptive for a parent to take a moment to give a teacher supplies at the doorway to their classroom than it is to remove two students from class entirely to go to the office to collect the item?  Should the office refuse to tell the teacher that a parent is waiting with the item, to ensure the parent is not left waiting for an exceptional amount of time? Should the school policy be to discourage parents from waiting with the item they are donating to the teacher and classroom and instead imply that they should just drop the item off? Should parents be encouraged to take a less personal and interactive approach with their gifts?

I may have been raised by wolves, but even *I* know it feels more polite to give a gift directly to a person than it is to deposit it with a third party.

Am I just overreacting? Should I just accept, as all the other parents have accepted, that I should just not expect to ever walk my child to class or deliver gifts or snacks unless it is before or after school hours? And that I should bring cupcakes during lunch to upset all the kids' nutrition for the day?  Should I basically adopt a hands off approach with my kid's school? That isn't why I picked this county for my child to GO to school in.
My child's teacher arrives just before the bell, and I personally don't think she should be expected to arrive early or stay late in order to have the added politeness and respect of me giving her the things directly. I cannot imagine the patience she must have to do what she does all day. Let the woman go HOME when her day is done. She doesn't want to sit around waiting for me, even if I have tons of hand sanitizer and tissues.
Perhaps I just have unrealistic expectations of what "parental involvement" is, but it certainly doesn't seem like it fits with this "discourage all parents from being on campus at all costs" approach that I seem to be experiencing. Because that makes me WANT to help less. It makes me LESS likely to donate items or money or my time, and I don't think that's a good overall policy to have if you want to keep parents involved. Having these realizations makes me sad, because I did all the "right" research before selecting our home and made sure to pick the "best" schools. Or did I? Because it is starting to look like maybe I didn't ask any of the right questions.....

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

School Employment Screenings

Let's talk about the school employment screenings, since I have mentioned being glad that the county is looking out for the safety of my children as well as everyone else's....So these screenings, are they 100% foolproof? Meaning, have they completely eliminated ALL incidents of abuse by teachers in our county?
Well, let's look at the first thing google came up with (though there were several more) http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/keyword/school-teacher
But...you protest....they were screened!
Yeah, they were screened, and deemed to be acceptable to allow around children because nothing came up on their background check.

Screening only prevents employment of people that have been caught for their offenses in the past. Screening volunteers as employees isn't going to magically make this screening more effective, but it does decrease the amount of parental involvement that a school can receive by banishing certain parents from helping out during most events.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

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The other F word

Sometimes when I am honest about my past, a hush falls over the group of moms and a look of uncertainty flitters across their faces. Most of them have usually known me for a while, and know that I am not scary or what you would typically first think of when you hear the word felon, and they recover quickly. And it IS like dropping an F-bomb, because there is a different reaction if I say "I made poor choices when I was younger" vs "I'm a convicted felon" Sometimes the second one is necessary though, like when people are trying to pressure me to vote or something that I can't legally do yet (as I mentioned in a previous post, I am filing for restoration of my rights and/or clemency this year) But even those who are thoroughly surprised usually at least act like they are fine with the new information after asking me a few questions about it to satisfy their curiosity.
My sweet girl’s birthday is next month. I’m probably allowed to drop off cookies or cupcakes or whatever in the front office for the class, but I won’t be able to walk them down the hall to the classroom door even just to wave or maybe say happy birthday, but certainly not to stay and help serve the cupcakes. We’ll do her party elsewhere, but that’s not my point.
My daughter is an exceptional reader. She’s in kindergarten, and has read all of the Ramona Quimby and Junie B. Jones books on her own so many times the backs are worn. She’s starting Ralph S. Mouse, she LOVES the Chronicles of Narnia, and we just started the Warriors series. Yes, I said she’s in kindergarten. Yes, I know. Her dad and I met in gifted class in elementary school and she has an awesome role model in her big sister, who always has her nose in a book.

It’s also book fair time. I’m starting to get emails asking for volunteers to help set up.  I’m pro-book, pro-reading, and happen to think I’m really good at engaging kids with that sort of thing, and that my daughter is proof of that. That isn’t what they’re even asking for help with though. It would be moving shelves and setting up books. I can’t help with this(or anything in the media center), because it is in the media center and there “might” be students present and I’m not an “approved dividend”. Never mind that there is a teacher/librarian in the media center at all times or that I’d be too busy moving boxes of books to give the kids my felon cooties anyway.
Conveniently, the way it is set up right now makes it almost impossible for anyone to find out about anyone else who can’t volunteer, since it is through the county office and not at the school itself. If anyone overhears anyone say anything to the school, they will hear them be reassured and directed to the dividend office. We’re supposed to be too ashamed of ourselves to start talking to other parents about it and learn that we aren’t alone. We’re supposed to feel too isolated to do anything about it so that we don’t bother, and give up and sit home without bringing this injustice to anyone’s attention. 

Well, I have no problem talking about my past.  I own my mistakes and acknowledge my history. I do not hide from it or shrink in embarrassment. It is who I was, but not who I am. I find most people to be understanding, sympathetic, and supportive of my predicament.  I hope to find other decent, hardworking parents that find themselves in a similar situation to let them know they may feel outcast, but they are not as alone as they think. (You’re not, I promise, see?)
If the school board is going to imply that I am less than adequate to volunteer, regardless of the length of time and the stacks of evidence and recommendation letters attesting to my hard work to change my lifestyle for the last DECADE, well, it’s a good thing I have a fabulous therapist because I won’t let them get to me. What I did twelve years ago (that still feels cool, to add another year) does not make me any less worthy of a normal experience and involvement with my child’s school and classroom.

Denying parents with criminal history over a decade old the chance to volunteer not only continues to punish us for our pasts beyond what the law requires, but punishes our children for it as well.

It just seems silly when I rarely see my own child during the volunteer projects I am allowed to help with. If I do it is when she stays after school with me to decorate the room or the door.  I can’t get there early and start before the end of school, which really kind of stinks since because of the traffic I have to arrive super early to be able to find somewhere to park. Then I sit either in my van or in the front office until school gets out and I am allowed to make my way to the classroom. Or I can come early in the morning (but not before 7:15 because that is when the office opens) but I have to be out the door by 7:25 when the bell rings. That gives me 10 minutes to set up for a party or whatever I need to do. Please don’t misunderstand, I am thankful for the ways I am allowed to help, but just think about how discouraging that is for a minute.
At the beginning of the year the school announced that you had to be a dividend to visit your child for lunch, and I will say that after I think the second time I contacted the dividend office and complained about this, the school changed this policy and no longer requires parents to be an approved volunteer to join their child for lunch. They do ask that we sit separately from the rest of our child's class though. That's fine by me, I'm very glad they changed it, since they often do "lunch with someone you love" and send home flyers asking family members to come join their child for lunch, and I had a lovely time when I was there. Pretty sure my little one did too! <3

I acknowledge and am thankful that they are trying to keep our schools safe, I do have two children in the system. But let's apply just a LITTLE bit of common sense here. When someone asks you to please look at them as a person, don't just repeat the same statute like a parrot. I understand what you are saying, I'm saying it is a bit harsh and to please look at it more closely.

By simply having different people repeat the same guidelines for screening of employees to me, you are telling me that you aren't looking at it any differently than you did the first time, because I'm not asking for a job, I'm just asking to be a volunteer.

vol-un-teer [vol-uh n-teer]
1. a person who voluntarily offers himself or herself for a service or undertaking.
2. a person who performs a service willingly and without pay.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Who is a felon?

So what do you think of when you think of a convicted felon?

Do you picture the guys on Prison Break or Sons of Anarchy? Dirty, scruffy, tough people, running around committing crimes?

How about Tim Allen? Martha Stewart? The lady next door? The cashier at the grocery store?

Why is it that we automatically assume that a felon must look rough, dirty and unkempt? Or that if someone is clean and well put together that they aren’t? Is that better or worse than seeing a rough looking guy and assuming he’s a felon simply from his appearance? Because not everyone with a full beard and a leather jacket is a criminal. And not everyone in professional business attire isn’t.
I remember a bunch of police coming to our school in 5th grade. They had a giant posterboard with pictures of all types of various drugs. I remember them talking about drugs being bad for you and the effects they can have on your body…including death.
What I don’t remember is them talking about what happens as far as punishment if you get caught with drugs. The long term effects of making one idiotic decision.

As I sat in my handcuffs, crying in the back of the squad car while we rode to the jail, I realized I was in big trouble but still didn’t come close to understanding the enormity with which this would affect the rest of my life.  I had family members that had gotten arrested before, but none had ever stayed in jail longer than a night or two to my knowledge. 
I got through booking to learn that my bail had been set at $50,000. Surprisingly, there were books available and I was able to investigate my charges and learn the terrifying truth. It carries a 3 year minimum mandatory sentence. It took me a good three weeks to accept that I had no idea how long it would be before I could rejoin the outside world.

 At some point I had an arraignment with a judge via a television screen, and asked to be released on my own recognizance since I hadn’t been in trouble before. My request was denied. I had to sit and watch 2 hours of other inmates’ hearings, including a sexual offender who WAS released on his own recognizance, but that is an entirely separate rant for another day.
Back to my story. I ended up sitting in jail for 2 ½ months before they lowered my bail and I could afford to get out. The case was continued for about a year, and then I was sentenced to a year and had to go in to finish the rest of my sentence (I got credit for the original 2 ½ months) And I will say that I am lucky and eternally grateful that the judge showed mercy in giving me just one year instead of three.

When I was a kid, my mother often grounded me for a month, but I had always found a way to renegotiate her terms and I’d be ungrounded by the end of a week. Except for the time I told her that would happen, then she actually stuck to it for two weeks.
My point is that I had ZERO CONCEPT of consequences at all, never mind of this level. I had no clue that making a couple of phone calls and introducing two people to each other would impact me for decades to come.  To me, this message should get out there to our children so that even if they walk that same path, they at least can’t say they didn’t know.

I would love to share my message with kids facing peer pressure to try drugs and drinking like a majority of their friends (I saw some random statistic that now 20% of kids over age 12 drink alcohol regularly, and that 25% of that figure binge  drink – now that’s scary) I have a 14 year old as well as my 5 year old and while I can talk to the two of them about that, what about the kids like I was, whose parents either don’t care to talk to them about it or assume they don’t need to?

But…the nature of my charge would never let me volunteer or speak to a group of kids in that capacity. Despite the fact that it was 11 years ago and I have not gotten in trouble since (aside from an occasional speeding ticket, but even that has been awhile) How very sad that they will not be able to learn from my mistakes and experiences.  Because to me, if even just ONE of them listened and learned something and altered their course, it would be worth the effort.

Now I’d like to talk about the laundry list of things that constitute a felony. Because honestly? In the family I grew up in, a lot of the things on this list were perfectly normal Saturday afternoon activities. I had no idea I grew up surrounded by criminals and addicts until I went to jail and consequently, therapy.

The concept that a perfectly ordinary individual can become a convicted felon never occurred to me. Maybe it never occurred to you either, unless you have a friend or family member like me. Let’s take a look at what Florida thinks, shall we?

Besides the obvious stuff, like murder, child porn, or robbing a bank, some common felony charges in Florida include: DUI, writing a bad check(fraud), getting in a fight (assault and battery), bigamy (I must admit, I didn’t expect that one), burglary(yes, it’s a felony, whether you are stealing from a house or a car),  and a myriad of charges involving various drugs.

Now, I’m not trying to say any of these things are ok, or that someone who does them shouldn’t get in trouble or have to face their punishment. I’m just trying to say that to a bunch of young adults that are completely uneducated (not all but definitely a percentage) on this topic, these could seem like ordinary things to do. And even if not, they are things it could be very easy to be led into getting involved in.

But not impossible to learn from.

And that is why it isn’t fair to continue to punish someone after they have completed all of the terms of their sentence. When I got the letter seven years ago telling me I was done with probation, it meant that I had completely repaid my debt to society. I am not forbidden by law to be around children or required to register with law enforcement or anything like that, I am just forbidden to be around children by the Seminole County School Board.

It seems so obvious to ME, at least, that someone who got in trouble once eleven years ago (Ooh! It’s after the New Year, I can start saying 12 years now! YAY!), and who hasn’t been in trouble since, has likely found their way to the straight and narrow path.  If I had been arrested every year since for similar things, I could totally see denying my application to volunteer. You know, this year I am eligible to ask for clemency (a pardon). Now, that doesn’t mean I’ll get it, apparently those standards got tougher in 2011, but my point is that it has been a sufficient length of time that I am allowed to begin the process. If it’s been long enough for that, surely it’s been long enough that I can help out around the school.

I think for me, the funniest part (though I wasn’t laughing) is that my first request for appeal was denied by the exact same person who said no to it the first time. How is that an appeal, exactly? Especially since when I spoke to the woman on the phone and she told me it was up to the state, not the county, and there was nothing they could do to approve my application. So when I asked her who it was I should contact about this at the state level, she quickly and snappily told me “NO ONE. There is NO ONE that you can talk to about an appeal, this is the policy.”

Since then I have learned this is NOT the state policy, and that the state leaves it up to each county to decide how they will handle volunteers. So telling me it was not up to the county itself was either a mistake or a lie. Both of which would need correction.

I believe that was the moment that I decided to follow through on this to the best of my ability, to prevent someone else being on the receiving end of that kind of treatment. I can take it and shrug it off, because I’m an exceptionally tough cookie. But not everyone can do that. For some people, that could have been the catalyst to push them back into drinking/drugging/self-destructing.
Shame on anyone who would kick someone who is already down like that! (That’s right, I won’t name names since it is public record and anyone can go see who it is online, but yeah SHAME ON YOU. Just because you are not a felon, doesn’t make you a better person, which I think is obvious based on your treatment of others). It is so hard to stay positive and focused in the face of hostility and judgment such as that, and so easy to give up like they intend for you to and say “I’ll never fit in, I’m just a criminal anyway, I may as well continue what I was doing before, because there is no room for the likes of me on the path of the righteous and good. They’re right, I should just go away.”

I have many MANY motivations to keep on fighting the good fight (in SO many areas of my life, which will come out over time as I continue this blog) and that is how I pick myself up, dust myself off and try again.  And if I can somehow pick myself up AND help others in the process, well, then that is another positive I can achieve even though I am a felon…..and I take those positives when I can, since we felons get so few of those.  ;)

That’s enough rambling for today. I have had many of you ask me to let you know when I am ready to present to the school board, so that you may join my cheering section – I will definitely make sure I announce it.   For now, I shall continue my research of county, state, and federal school volunteer rules and start watching prior school board meetings online so I can get a feel for how things go so I am more comfortable when it is time for my presentation. I like to do things properly and thoroughly, and those things take a little bit of time.

On that note, I will leave you with some parting motivational words from my five year old. With inspiration like this, how could I possibly give up? :)