TAMPA — Teachers say they are discouraged from writing discipline referrals. Students need more time with counselors. And, by some accounts, children are encouraged to take a few days off instead of serving an official suspension.
As more than 200,000 Hillsborough County children return to school today, they will experience a well-intended discipline policy that, according to some teachers, still needs work.
Reforms that took effect last year are keeping more students in class instead of home on suspension.
But two-thirds of teachers who responded to a union survey said the new policies did not make schools more orderly. Some said principals discourage them from taking action out of pressure to keep their numbers down. Only 28 percent agreed with the statement, "I feel supported by my administration when I write a referral."
The responses, from 1,563 union members representing roughly 10 percent of Hillsborough teachers, paint a different picture than the district's own surveys, which say behavior has improved as educators work to cut down on the rampant suspension of minority children that is sometimes referred to as the "school to prison pipeline."
Across Tampa Bay, Pinellas school officials also are grappling with how to make discipline more fair while not tying teachers' hands. District leaders have decreased the number of days students can be suspended to five from 10, and have stopped deducting credit from make-up work by students who miss school. They also are creating alternative settings for students to serve out-of-school suspensions.
Pinellas also starts schooltoday, beginning the first full year those changes will be in effect.
Pasco County began tackling the issue last fall with a new data system that allows educators to spot and correct racial disparities in discipline more quickly.
Hillsborough leaders began studying the issue in earnest in 2013, when statistics showed black children were vastly over-represented in both the number of students suspended and the number of school days missed. Adding to that pressure was a 2014 investigation, still ongoing, by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.
After a task force met for two years, the district started requiring principals to get approval before issuing an out-of-school suspension of more than five days. Previously, students could be suspended up to 10 days.
The new policy eliminated vague offense categories such as "inappropriate behavior." Tardiness was dropped from the list.
Union leaders, while supportive of efforts to ease disciplinary measures that fall disproportionately on black children, cautioned from the beginning that more would be asked of school staff.
"We all agree that discipline should be equitable and our goal should be to keep kids in school," says a report the union prepared showing its survey results.
"Our students clearly have a variety of challenges and we need supportive services to help them overcome whatever challenges and barriers they face."
"That means we need social workers, psychologists, guidance counselors, success coaches or intervention specialists."
One social worker, in an interview as part of her campaign for a seat on the School Board, suggested schools are finding creative ways to get around the new policy.
"What I have seen is that oftentimes my schools will simply send students home and not call it a suspension," said Lynette Judge, a school social worker for the last 16 years.
"They may advise the parent, especially if they're sent home on a Thursday or Wednesday, 'Let them stay home, bring them back to school Monday.' "
When asked if such an action could be viewed as an off-the-books suspension, Judge agreed, "it's an off-the-books suspension," and added, "I think it's a fairly common practice."
The Tampa Bay Times read that statement to union executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, who asked some of her members if they had heard of administrators doing such a thing. They had, she said.
District spokeswoman Tanya Arja said it would be hard to respond to an allegation about off-the-books suspensions without knowing what school or schools were involved. If the Times could identify them, she said, she would arrange interviews with their principals.
As for the union's teacher survey, Arja pointed to the yearly Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning survey, which this year had a far greater response rate of 74 percent. Of the TELL respondents, 83 percent gave positive answers to questions about student conduct, a three-point improvement over 2015.
"We want to make sure everyone has a voice," Arja said.
"We have taken a look at employee data from our TELL surveys as well as information collected from the teacher's union. Our goal is to listen to everyone to ensure we are providing consistent guidance on how to handle discipline in a safe and fair manner."
The union, however, contends its findings are consistent with the TELL and student climate surveys, and that students who need help are hurt by current staffing formulas.
Long concerned about the demands on guidance counselors, the union asked this year for limits on how much of a counselor's time can be used for non-counseling activities, such as testing. District negotiators have resisted any numerical formula. Negotiations are still under way.
At a news conference last week, superintendent Jeff Eakins said before hiring more student support employees, it is important to make sure those currently employed are being used appropriately. He made similar remarks a year ago, before the new policy went into effect.
Despite the union's findings, district leaders are encouraged by the new system's early results.
Total days missed to suspension dropped by 23 percent from the 2014-15 school year to 2015-16, Eakins told the School Board recently. He was especially impressed with training he saw at Madison Middle School in restorative practices to use after students get in trouble.
While the racial gap in school discipline did not improve measurably, Eakins said he believes that if the numbers continue to drop for all racial groups, that gap will narrow.
Times staff writer Cara Fitzpatrick contributed to this report. Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol