Teachers in 'quagmire' as Hillsborough schools push classroom discipline without suspensions

New 'restorative practices' have helped slash the number of days students spend out of class, but the bad behavior is growing.
Students will get in trouble, notes Memorial Middle School principal April Gillyard. The task for school officials is helping work through the trouble toward success. [OCTAVIO JONES  | Times]
Students will get in trouble, notes Memorial Middle School principal April Gillyard. The task for school officials is helping work through the trouble toward success. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published June 28
Updated June 28

TAMPA — Memorial Middle School exemplifies a dramatic decline across the Hillsborough school district in the number of students suspended when they get in trouble.

Principal April Gillyard credits procedures instituted when she arrived in 2017. Parents are brought into the disciplinary process. Kids are taught to recognize what their bodies feel like before they have a meltdown. Teachers learn sensitivity to trauma and to avoid provocation, or “poking the bear.” Meditation rooms were even created, for students as well as teachers.

“They’re kids,” Gillyard told the School Board at a workshop Tuesday. “They’re going to make mistakes. They’re going to get in trouble. But our job is to teach them when they make those mistakes, how to move past and move through it.”

But not all schools can reach for a tool chest so complete as they work to cut suspensions. One result: While the number of suspension days may have declined over the past five years, the bad behavior has not.

“We feel like it’s spiraling out of control,” Rob Kriete, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, said after the workshop.

Numbers tell the story.

There were about 60,000 fewer suspension days during the school year that just ended than there were five years earlier, according to the district’s the School Environment Safety Incident Reporting system. The most recent figures are a slight uptick of 335 over the year before.

But the just-ended school year also saw spikes in most categories of reported behavior, including physical attacks, fighting, bullying and drug and tobacco use.

Teachers understand why suspensions are now discouraged and why the School Board has backed away from a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to discipline, Kriete said.

Five years ago, the board took notice of a correlation between suspensions and dropout rates — and the disproportionate number of suspensions among black students. Even now, the number of blacks suspended more than 10 days is 2.7 times more than the number of Hispanic students and 4.8 times more than white students, according to data provided at the workshop.

Still, with suspensions no longer a go-to disciplinary tool, teachers feel they have been left to fend for themselves when students act out in their classrooms, Kriete said.

“There’s a feeling the pendulum has swung a little too far back,” he said.

• • •

Board members showed no interest in returning to a reliance on suspensions.

“History has shown us (suspensions) are not the way to solve the problem,” member Lynn Gray said. “We’re in a quagmire.” Instead, members suggested more discussion and training to improve the alternative — an approach called restorative practices.

Member Cindy Stuart said the board needs to clarify its goals with restorative practices and how they’re distinct from the old zero-tolerance policies.

“We can’t have it both ways,” Stuart said. “You need to decide, board, what is it that we’re going to implement. We need to make a fundamental decision about whether or not we’re actually going to put restorative practices into place.”

To illustrate the difference, district officials presented a scenario during the Tuesday workshop: Student “Carlos” arrives at school late and at lunchtime, he gets into a minor altercation in the cafeteria.

In a zero-tolerance school, Carlos is scolded and given detention when he talks back. He is arrested by school police officers and leaves the campus — facing suspension — for a juvenile detention center.

At a school that follows restorative practices, Carlos’ teacher sets up a meeting for him with his school counselor and peer mediators work to calm him down during the lunchtime conflict. After school the same day, a counselor meets with his parents. The scenario seemed simplistic to School Board vice chairwoman Melissa Snively.

“Neither system in extreme will work,” Snively said. “Speaking from an employer’s standpoint, if Carlos argues with his wife before he comes into work and he decides to have an outburst in my office, Carlos probably won’t have a job tomorrow, okay?” Restorative practices doesn’t mean going soft on kids, said Kristine Hensley, who supervises the effort for the district. Instead, the approach establishes a culture of building relationships, Hensley said.

Acting out, said board member Karen Perez, is often a sign of mental health issues or a reaction to trauma outside of school. According to district data, black students with disabilities are 5.6 times more likely than any other student to face out-of-school suspension for more than 10 days.

• • •

At Memorial Middle on Central Avenue, principal Gillyard said, 90 percent of the students consistently face trauma and the school’s disciplinary approach needs to take that into account.

“As a grown woman, if I had their morning, I would not be effective either,” Gillyard said. “So we have to be aware of that and teach them the skills to navigate through school, because school is a system.”

Not all acting out is the same, teacher Michelle Hamlyn from South Tampa’s Coleman Middle told the board later in the day.

Even in schools like hers, with relatively low levels of trauma, where parents are heavily involved and students read at grade level, behavioral problems occur.

One example: Two Coleman students have amassed more than 50 disciplinary referrals over the past three years, including bullying that led to court action.

"Two students who have held other students’ learning hostage,” Hamlyn said, “two students who have monopolized administrative and counseling resources, two students who have not been held accountable for their actions.” Teachers got no help to deal with the situation, she said.

“The message to the other students was loud and clear. These two students are allowed to behave in ways that are unwelcome, inappropriate, unacceptable and prevent you from learning and there’s nothing you can do about it."

Kriete with the teachers’ union met with district leaders after the workshop and said focus groups now are planned for the fall with elementary, middle and high school teachers to hear about specific challenges in their classrooms.

“Getting all the stakeholders at the table will be essential,” Kriete said. “A one-size-fits all policy doesn’t really work very well in Hillsborough County.”

Contact Divya Kumar at dkumar@tampabay.com. Follow @divyadivyadivya.

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