In the midst of a discussion on student discipline at the Pinellas School Board's annual retreat on March 4-5, board member Mary Brown made a provocative comment that the district must address "the elephant in the room" when it comes to kids behaving badly. She spoke with St. Petersburg Times reporter Donna Winchester recently about her comments.
You said that as the district has moved back toward a system of neighborhood schools, you've been approached by white teachers in South Pinellas schools who say they feel intimidated by black students, particularly black males. Can you elaborate a little more on that?
I think the big thing about it is that unless we get high standards of appropriate behavior, you can't have high standards for learning.
If you allow black children to not act appropriately, it's not good for them. We have too many black males in particular not graduating from high school and dropping out. Something is wrong. I don't know what it is, but I do know that we can't afford to have this many young black males without jobs. Our prisons are full of them. We have got to do something about whatever is causing the problem. We have to set those standards in school. We really do. When they walk through our doors, we should have control. We should be able to tell them what is and what is not acceptable. If (teachers) set the standard and say, "This is the expectation," the kids will have to follow the rules.
For how long have you been hearing from white teachers that they've felt intimidated by black students?
I've been hearing this off and on ever since I've been on the board. It's not new. We just have not dealt with it.
How frequently do teachers approach you about this?
I can't say. Some schools I go into, things are running great. I think it's sort of like a barrel of apples. It's not all the apples in the barrel that are a problem, it's just a few.
Is it possible to say over time how many comments you've heard along these lines?
I would say over the time I have been on the board, I have heard it periodically. Big kids intimidate little teachers. It's with all races. I mentioned black children because they're the ones on the bottom when it comes to this learning gap. Some of our schools need more help than others. The board had said when we moved to neighborhood schools that they would give the support where the support was needed. That's what I'm expecting the board to do now.
So was your bringing this up at the retreat part of a strategy to get board members back to the point where they're talking about giving more resources to these South Pinellas schools?
I fought very hard for us not to go back to neighborhood schools. I fought it all alone because I believed so strongly that these kids need to be together so they can learn from each other.
The board promised us. That was one of the things that was said, that those schools that need help will get it. They made that promise. I will not let the board forget that.
When you say South Pinellas schools need more resources, what do you mean specifically?
We need two things. We need strong administrators to set that standard and develop strong teams and let teachers know they're supported. Along with that, we need training for the teachers. Sometimes you can handle things right away so they won't get started. High expectations for behavior breed high expectations for learning. Without the first, you're not going to get the second.
Do you think the reason why this issue hasn't come up before is because white board members were hesitant to bring it up?
As an African-American person, I can be free in saying how I feel. I'm not sure how all blacks will feel about it. But this is my belief. I will deal with what I believe strongly in. I have always done that, and I will continue to do that.
Besides the board possibly getting back to a discussion about providing more resources to South Pinellas schools, what else would you like to see happen?
I think what's important is that we have the discussion in the community. If we're going to make the changes that are necessary for students and if we're going to really close this gap, black students have got to go beyond where white students are in order for us to see the gains.
At the rate we're going, we're going to have all these kids who are not going to make it. That is very disturbing to me. I look at all the young black men who are dropping out. Where are they going to go? How are they going to make a living?
Do you think the discussion that has risen up from your comments will cause the board to begin discussing adding resources to South Pinellas schools?
I don't know if it will, but I would hope that it would. I will not let the board forget its promise.