LARGO — Pinellas School Board members were midway through a discussion on student discipline Thursday when board member Mary Brown announced it was time to talk about "the elephant in the room" when it comes to kids acting up.
As the district returns to a system of neighborhood schools, Brown said, she once again is hearing from white south county teachers who say they feel intimidated by black students, particularly black males.
"We have had black students tell white teachers, 'We don't want you here because this is a black school,' " Brown said. "We have to deal with this right up front so students won't feel they're in control."
The way to do that, Brown continued, is to make sure teachers have the training they need so they can deal with issues that start on the street but end up in the classroom.
Nina Hayden, the board's other African-American member, backed Brown up, saying that school is a testing ground for many black males.
"When they come up toe to toe on the street with a white male or an Asian male, that's how they decide their turf," said Hayden, who is an assistant public defender. "We have got to think outside the box and start doing things differently to attack these types of issues."
The remarks came on the second day of the board's annual retreat, held this year at DITEK Corp. in Largo.
For two days, board members heard presentations from district officials on topics ranging from graduation rates to charter schools.
The board returned to the topic at hand without discussing Brown's comments, but board member Carol Cook said after the session that she wasn't surprised at the remarks because Brown has said similar things before.
"I think the fact that this has been said is just another acknowledgement of the need to look at discipline," Cook said.
Gibbs High School principal Antelia Campbell said she agreed with Brown that teachers in challenging schools, both black and white, need training to understand the community and culture from which their students come. But she said she thinks intimidation goes beyond race.
"If you're a teacher dealing with a kid of large stature who starts to yell and lose control, of course you would be afraid," she said.
Two community leaders in south St. Petersburg said Brown and Hayden were right to raise an issue that needs more discussion.
Ray Tampa, president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP, said he's known for some time that teachers are intimidated by kids. But like Campbell, he doesn't think intimidation and race go hand in hand.
He thinks the problem often is "weak teachers," both black and white.
"Some of these teachers are scared to tell their kids to pull their pants up, and I'm not just saying white teachers," said Tampa, a former principal who ran against Brown for the School Board in 2004.
He added that he thinks most of the problem stems from black students, not teachers.
His suggestions: more black male role models, better cultural competency training, and more guidance and support for teachers who are dealing with disruptive students.
Watson Haynes, co-chairman of Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students, or COQEBS, said the disproportionately high rates of discipline for black students are shocking.
But he stopped short of saying there is a specific problem between white teachers and black students. There may be, he said, but he's also heard from black teachers who are concerned about the behavior of black students.
Two weeks ago, he ran into a black teacher from John Hopkins Middle School who told him "something's got to be done" about black kids who are "out of hand."
Haynes said COQEBS members plan to meet next week with Hayden and superintendent Julie Janssen.
"We're looking at long term: What do we need to do?" Haynes said.