Tampa, Florida -- More than 100 people from across the color spectrum packed Beulah Baptist Church in Tampa for the Pastor's Unity for Youth Dinner Monday night.
The topic: the black youth arrest rate, and what black leaders call "the school to prison pipeline."
Black students are arrested at greater rates than other groups, exceed the rates statewide, and are convicted more than whites and Hispanics, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Those in attendance say it's alarming.
"Our school system is one of the major feeders of incarceration in the state of Florida, and we can't afford it anymore. $8,000 a year to educate a child, $50,000 a year to incarcerate them. What are we doing?" said Dr. Russell Meyer.
One of the most visible examples of youth injustice is Kiera Wilmot, the Bartow High School honor student who was expelledand faced felony charges for a science experiment gone wrong. She recalled the fear of her experience.
"I actually cried," she said. "I was thinking, 'What if I never get to see my sister again? What if I never get to go home? What if I can't find a job? All those things."
The charges were eventually dropped after intense media scrutiny. Kiera became a poster child for the zero tolerance reform movement, and was tonight's youth honoree. Her message to others?
"I tell them to keep their head up, keep moving on. I know it's going to be tough, but it gets worse before it gets better," said Wilmot.