TAMPA — The students who gathered for interviews at Middleton High School on a Saturday included some tough kids and some not-so-tough, all African-American and male.
Their answers surprised the panel of Hillsborough County school district officials, as well as School Board member Doretha Edgecomb, who attended the event. More than a third had positive role models. Half described strong parental support.
And those who didn't have either said the most important people in their lives were teachers.
"That perhaps puts a burden on the teachers, but it also says that kids really look up to those who teach," Edgecomb said during a board workshop Tuesday. "If teachers don't know how valued they are, I think this is an indication, and kids said it themselves."
District officials, led by assistant superintendent Lewis Brinson, are studying an issue that is commonly recognized across the nation: The disproportionate number of student discipline cases that involve African-American males.
Black students account for 21 percent of Hillsborough's population. But of all discipline incidents in 2011-12, 44 percent involved black students. And two-thirds involved males.
When in-school suspensions were measured, 40 percent involved blacks. And male students were almost twice as likely to be suspended as females.
Across the board, no matter how the data was analyzed, black male students were represented more heavily than their white or Hispanic counterparts.
"We have children that are being excluded from school, which results in loss of instructional time," Brinson said. "This is not something that anyone is proud of."
And, according to one graphic measuring middle school students who are transferred out of their schools over conduct issues, the gap is widening over time.
Everyone around the table — including the principals of several high schools — agreed the issue requires more study and will not be fixed easily.
There were, however, some suggestions, and lessons learned in the research.
Brinson said the vast majority of discipline cases involve nonviolent offenses, such as tardiness, skipping class, disobedience and the catch-all, "inappropriate behavior."
That means teachers and administrators often have latitude. They might correct the behavior. Or, instead of an out-of-school suspension, they can suspend the student in-school. "They're still not in front of their teacher," Brinson said. "But it's better than being out of school on suspension."
Edgecomb said, "we have to be more aggressive about recruiting male teachers in our schools, and especially men of color."
She and others on the board agreed the district should place a greater emphasis on relationships between students and teachers, which must be established ahead of the emphasis on academics.
School Board member Candy Olson said the issue needs a lot more study, even if the district needs to hire a consultant. "A lot of our students who come to school don't even know what inappropriate behavior is," she said. "We can't even agree on it."
Nor are teachers trained to teach behavior, as they teach math or reading, she said. "Our whole behavioral side is not written until you get in trouble, and you get punished for it."
For now, Brinson wants all principals to examine their discipline data, look for trends and update their school discipline plans frequently.
And the group agreed to hold more workshops. "This can't be a one-time conversation," Edgecomb said.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org.