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Activists urge continued federal pressure on Hillsborough schools to end racial gaps

Marilyn Williams speaks during a Hillsborough County School Board meeting in 2015. Williams filed a complaint in 2014 with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, alleging the district discriminates against black students. A follow-up letter to the agency in October 2016 says the district's response to her complaint has been inadequate. [EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times]

Civil rights activist and retired educator

Marilyn Williams speaks during a Hillsborough County School Board meeting in 2015. Williams filed a complaint in 2014 with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, alleging the district discriminates against black students. A follow-up letter to the agency in October 2016 says the district's response to her complaint has been inadequate. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District should not be released from an ongoing federal investigation into alleged racial disparities in teaching and discipline, a civil rights activist says.

In a letter that takes issue with the school district's view of how black students are doing, retired educator Marilyn Williams says Hillsborough has not proven it is on a path to provide equity. Williams, who filed a discrimination complaint in 2014 with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, sent her rebuttal to the agency earlier this month.

RELATED: Hillsborough works to solve a problem: rookie teachers in the most demanding schools

Among her arguments:

• The district has reduced or eliminated the remedies it described in its Jan. 8 letter to the federal agency.

• A task force formed in 2013 to develop recommendations for racial equity was disbanded, with the district following only some of its recommendations.

• The district, in its January letter, said it gathers data regularly so its leaders can monitor progress. But the document does not show, through data, that those efforts are working.

Williams contends the letter was misleading, was not detailed enough, and didn't show how the school system would address discipline disparities or put more experienced teachers into low-income schools. Her letter also was signed by Jennifer Morley, local chair of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Rev. Russell Meyer, director of the Florida Council of Churches.

T. G. Taylor, chief community relations officer for the school district, said student suspensions are down sharply this year.

"We understand the concerns of those filing the rebuttal," Taylor said. "We continue to work with the Office for Civil Rights to ensure that all of our students are treated equally.

"It is of the utmost importance to the school district that every student receives a top quality education regardless of race, upbringing or neighborhood. Creating and maintaining a positive learning environment for all students is an essential part of our job as educators."

In sending the 17-page letter, district officials had hoped to begin negotiations with the federal agency that would result in a voluntary compliance agreement instead of a continued investigation. With that in mind, they have used the letter as a blueprint.

Not long after Williams filed her complaint, then-Superintendent MaryEllen Elia announced a new "student success" approach that would focus on each middle and high school's 100 most at-risk students, a group that often includes many minority students.

Early results showed attendance improved at 63 percent of the schools. Discipline referrals decreased at 81 percent of the schools, although some of that change stemmed from new ways of classifying behavior problems.

Academic performance did not improve measurably. Program leaders said they expected those improvements to lag behind the changes in attendance and behavior.

But today it is unclear how many success coaches will remain in their assignments as the district tries to protect its reserves, in part by reducing the number of non-classroom teachers. In recent months, both chief of staff Alberto Vazquez and chief business officer Gretchen Saunders have named success coaches as one group that might be reduced.

Williams' rebuttal document takes issue with the district's reliance on behavior strategies designed largely for elementary school, not middle and high school.

It also notes the district spent a year developing strategies for its seven low-income "Elevate" schools, but then changed course and eliminated both the department in charge of that effort and its leader's position. Now the seven schools are under the jurisdiction of their area offices.

As the Tampa Bay Times reported this week, a disproportionate number of teachers in those schools are new to the district.

The original complaint to the federal government also spotlighted disparities in discipline along racial lines, a problem that has been under discussion in the district since 2013.

Yearly expulsion and change of placement reports invariably show that the odds of being pushed out of a school are many times greater for black students than for white students.

The most recent numbers, from 2015, showed 58 percent of students referred for expulsion or change of placement were black. Districtwide, the black population is 21 percent.

One clear result of the task force recommendations was a change in the way the district handles classroom disruptions.

Out-of-school suspensions of more than five days must be cleared in advance by an area superintendent. And students are no longer subjected to formal discipline for arriving late, or for vaguely described offenses such as "inappropriate behavior." Lateness is handled with counseling, and discipline offenses must be specific.

District officials say those new policies have resulted in an overall reduction, across all racial groups, in suspension time. Teachers, however, told their union in a survey that they do not always feel supported in disciplinary matters, and the schools have not been given enough support staff to help students with behavioral and emotional problems.

The district says its own climate surveys contradict the union report. A School Board workshop on discipline and race is planned in November.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.

Activists urge continued federal pressure on Hillsborough schools to end racial gaps 10/11/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 11, 2016 12:51pm]
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