Living his lesson

Michel Petithomme warns youths that the decisions they make today can come back to haunt them tommorrow. And what is happening to him now is proving his point.

Published July 7, 2006

Michel Petithomme leans his crutches on a table to point to the youths: Have you ever stolen? he asks.

About a dozen hands go up among the 25 children and teens in the Miami park rec room. They have come on this recent day to hear a talk by the man introduced as a "community hero" by the park director.

"I stole when I was your age," says Petithomme, now 31. "But I'm here to tell you to make better choices, because, no matter what you do to change, the choices you make now could come back and destroy your life."

Petithomme does not tell the young people - mostly between 10 and 15 - that after almost a dozen years of leading an exemplary life, his choices as a teenager have come back to haunt him. He does not tell them that the Miami school system's interpretation of the Jessica Lunsford Act - passed by the Florida Legislature in 2005 to block sexual predators from school grounds - is being applied to him and hundreds of others, who were never sexual predators.

Instead, on a muggy day in late June at Talcolcy Park in northwest Miami, he tells his story of "wrong choices" in the same way he has for more than a decade to children in Miami's public schools.

At 9, when he came from Haiti in 1985, he was a small kid with a Haitian accent. Kids made fun of him and he wanted to belong.

"I wanted to be the boss of my life. I wanted to impress my peers," he says.

At 11, he was arrested for shoplifting. By 13, he was a repeat offender. At 15, in 1990, he and three friends stole a car.

Police chased the four boys in the stolen Mazda, and Petithomme, who was driving, crashed into a wall. Two of his friends died in the wreck, and he was convicted of seconddegree felony murder because of the two deaths. At 15, he went to prison for almost five years.

The fourth boy in the car, Emmanuel Mazard, now 31, said, "All of us in the car were yelling at Michel to go faster. Because of this, I never blamed him for the accident and neither did the parents of the two kids who died."

But Petithomme blamed himself.

When he got out of prison, he apologized to the families of his dead friends. And, even now, when he talks about them, his eyes well up with tears.

"I didn't have to do what my friends said," he tells the youths at Talcolcy Park, who have stopped chattering and are listening intently.

As Petithomme speaks, the youths stare at a life-sized picture of a crushed blue Mazda projected on the wall. Two boys are lying in blood next to it. Petithomme points to his dead friends and says he went to prison for making the choice to drive the car and run from the police.

"I'm showing you this sad picture because I'm hoping I can stop you from suffering the way they did and the way I have," he tells them.

He does not tell them about all of the awards and letters of commendation he has received for his work over the years.

In prison, Petithomme made the decision to turn his life around. When he got out before his 20th birthday, he held down part-time jobs as a welder, a meat packer and a window cleaner, and volunteered about 10 hours a week at Miami alternative schools to help kids in trouble. Later, he went to college.

"Michel has been such an inspiration to kids," said Howard Mintz, a middle school teacher who runs a weekend program at Soar Park in northwest Miami.

"All Michel wanted to do, when he got out of prison, was help people," Mintz said.

Petithomme spent weekends collecting food and clothes, and then distributing them to needy people, Mintz said. He also went to schools to share his story.

"He came to my school (Horace Mann Middle School in Miami) and the kids really listened to him," Mintz said.

In 1996 Petithomme became an HIV counselor, and eight years later program director for Big Brothers and Big Sisters in Miami. It was his job to go into the schools to recruit kids for Big Brothers and Big Sisters after-school programs.

On April 6 of this year, that work came to an abrupt halt.

Petithomme was in the hospital recovering from a bad fall from a ladder. Several hours after surgery to have metal screws put in his broken leg and wrist, a man in a light shirt wearing a badge appeared at his hospital bed.

He handed Petithomme a letter.

"In accordance with the Jessica Lunsford Act," said the letter, "the Miami-Dade County Public Schools has determined that you have not been cleared to come on school grounds or ... have direct contact with students."

"I went blank," Petithomme said. "I was so stunned, I thanked the officer for the letter."

Petithomme re-read the letter, wondering what he had to do with the Jessica Lunsford Act.

"I had always been open with employers about the car chase and what happened. I couldn't make a connection between that and sexual predators," he said.

The Miami-Dade County School District applies the Jessica Lunsford Act to those with nonfinancial agreements with the schools who were convicted of a felony but never charged or convicted of a sexual crime.

"It's not an FDLE decision to interpret it like this," said Tom Berlinger, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "Petithomme is not on any list of sexual predators. The Miami-Dade school system has set its own rules and expanded the act to make it more strict, which they're allowed to do."

The 24 additional crimes on the Miami list - all felonies - include second-degree murder.

At the heart of how the Miami-Dade school system has interpreted the Jessica Lunsford Act, Berlinger said, is this question: "Should it make a difference now that Petithomme - or anyone else - committed a felony as a child, 16 years ago, if that person has done good ever since?"

Paul Greenfield, the Miami-Dade school administrator who signed the letter delivered to Petithomme in the hospital, believes it should.

"It's not my goal to stop people who have turned their lives around," said Greenfield, who is head of employee standards for Miami schools. "But avoiding the police and felony murder is not the kind of thing we can overlook."

Greenfield says he raised his daughter, who is now 19, telling her not to make bad choices because they could come back to haunt her. What has happened to Petithomme proves his point, he says.

"Look at him. He has paid his debt many times over, but now - even though he's not an employee - he can't be with our children at school," Greenfield said.

State Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, who voted for the Jessica Lunsford Act, supports Greenfield: "This interpretation is harsh and maybe excessive. But certainty and severity are very important in its application - sometimes more important than the hardship caused."

School officials in other counties like Hillsborough and Pinellas, however, apply the act differently.

"We have latitude and would probably welcome Petithomme in our schools because we find that people who have turned their lives around are very valuable speakers," said Linda Kipley, director of professional standards for Hillsborough County schools.

Pinellas County school administrators agree with Kipley: "Petithomme was young and gave in to peer pressure. He has done a lot since, which we would consider," said Laura Mead, information specialist for Pinellas schools.

Renee Kinney, Petithomme's supervisor at Big Brothers and Big Sisters, says the Miami school district's application of the Jessica Lunsford Act is having a much greater negative effect than anyone anticipated.

"What is happening to Michel - who is so well respected - is happening to others," she said. "We can only hope for a glitch bill to reverse the unintended consequences."

Petithomme concludes his talk to the youths at the park with slides of teenagers who are serving 30 to 40 years in Florida's prisons.

"Will they die there?" he asks.

His audience sits wide-eyed and silent.

"Think before you act," he tells them.

Earlier in the week, Petithomme met with Greenfield to ask if there was any hope he might return to the schools.

"Not impossible, but unlikely," Greenfield said.

Petithomme nodded.

"Thanks for allowing me to do the work I love for 11 great years," he told the administrator.

Then he left.