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Federal complaint questions how Hillsborough disciplines minority students

Jaylin Walker got in fights.

But he didn't usually start them. Someone would flick his neck. Then fists were thrown. Then Jaylin would get suspended.

After four suspensions, Benito Middle School asked Jaylin, then 14, to transfer. Inches shy of 6 feet tall, he was called too big, too violent.

His mother, Latwaska Hamilton, said her son suffers from anger issues and has special learning needs. He needs extra attention and patient teachers.

But Jaylin was asked to transfer, she said, because he is black.

"Young African-American males are already assumed to be a threat," Hamilton, 37, said of the punishments, which happened during the 2012-13 school year. "Jaylin just looked the part, and he was treated that way."

•••

Hamilton's concern that her son's punishments were harsher than necessary echoes a complaint filed this month with the United States Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

Marilyn Williams, a retired teacher and Tampa activist, alleges that the Hillsborough County School District discriminates against black students by subjecting them to harsher penalties than white students. She also claims students in lower-income schools, which are predominantly black, are denied access to experienced teachers.

Her complaint triggered a response from the federal agency, which asked the district to answer 42 questions related to the allegations that it shortchanges minority students.

Among other things, the investigators wanted copies of disciplinary policies and detailed information on how they are carried out, criteria for referring a student for discipline, examples of positive behavior programs and procedures for staff training.

Asked to answer all the questions in 15 days, the district responded that it needed 60 days.

•••

This issue isn't unique to Hillsborough County.

For years, advocates have called for an end to the so-called "school-to-prison pipeline," a nationwide trend that funnels children into the criminal justice systems for minor offenses. The issue has cropped up in New York, Chicago and parts of Florida. Last year in Broward County, more students were arrested on campus than in any other state district, largely for misdemeanors like marijuana possession or spray painting, according to a Dec. 2, 2013, New York Times article. "Children need education, not incarceration," said Dr. Jennifer Morley, a nonprofit consultant in Tampa and an American Civil Liberties Union of Florida volunteer.

Morley argued that children are more likely to drop out and never pursue profitable careers if they're bridled with harsh punishments that remove them from the classroom. Minority students suffer under "zero-tolerance policies" and people shouldn't be penalized "for stupid stuff they did as kids," she said.

"The data's there," Morley said of the complaint, "and the district's going to have to respond to it."

•••

Frustration. Disappointment. Anger.

These words swing through Marilyn Williams' mind whenever she thinks about how black students are treated in the district.

That's why she filed the complaint.

After earning a master's degree in conflict resolution and teaching in different schools outside the state, Williams moved to Florida in 1999. She spent a few years working with the local NAACP, which she said allowed her to gather the information necessary to challenge the system.

After a while, Williams started noticing small things. Black children who had to earn a teacher's trust. Counselors who weren't as patient. An increase in school resource officers and violent incidents.

Then she looked at the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores in Hillsborough County broken down by race. And she was astounded.

In 2013, 37 percent of black students in the third grade scored at or above the minimum achievement level for reading. That number dropped to 34 percent for eighth-graders and 29 percent for 10th-graders.

"Unless one is willing to accept the belief that black students are intellectually inferior ... then one must question why the district has consistently had poor academic performance outcomes for black students," Williams wrote in her complaint.

Williams also included a report from the Advancement Project that suggested harsh policies disproportionately affect students of color. For example, black students comprised 21 percent of the Hillsborough County school population but accounted for 50 percent of out-of-school suspensions during the 2011-12 school year.

"That kind of blew my mind," Williams said.

•••

Morley, the nonprofit consultant, said the over-disciplining aspect of Williams' complaint is a valid issue. But she doesn't believe as much can be done about black children getting more effective teachers.

"Teachers can do what they want," she said.

That doesn't mean the School Board isn't trying to steer more educators to high-needs schools, said Stephen Hegarty, district spokesman.

For the past two years, superintendent MaryEllen Elia has written to teachers, asking them to follow their "sense of idealism" and help fill vacancies at high-needs schools.

"I am asking teachers to consider getting out of their comfort zone to teach at a school where the challenges are great," Elia wrote. "There are children and families at those schools who need you."

Teachers who relocate get a 2 percent raise the first year and 5 percent after that, Hegarty said. Those who move to the highest-poverty schools get a $1,000 recruitment bonus and a $2,000 retention bonus after the first year.

"There's no way of telling why they transferred," Hegarty wrote in an email, referring to the teachers. "However, we gave out 65 recruitment bonuses last year."

The Hillsborough Classroom Teacher's Association declined to comment on the issue.

The Office for Civil Rights also had no comment on the broad scope of the investigation. In its own response, the district questioned "the standing" of complainant Marilyn Williams. But, according to the federal agency's website, anyone can file a discrimination complaint.

No matter what happens, Latwaska Hamilton, the mother concerned about her son's discipline issues, sees the complaint as progress.

"Because the situation is God awful," she said, "something different has to happen."

Contact Zack Peterson at zpeterson@tampabay.com or 813-226-3446. Follow him @zackpeterson918.

Federal complaint questions how Hillsborough disciplines minority students 06/29/14 [Last modified: Sunday, June 29, 2014 11:29pm]

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