Saturday, August 18, 2018
Education

Pinellas School Board limits out-of-school suspensions, fires back at critics

The Pinellas County School Board agreed Tuesday to ease the district's discipline policies by cutting the number of days a student can be suspended out of school and no longer deducting from their grades on make-up work.

At the same time, some on the board fired back at critics who said the district didn't go far enough in curbing punishments that disproportionately affect the county's black students.

Board member Linda Lerner said it was time for community groups to recognize the district is making progress. She chided the Southern Poverty Law Center and FAST, a coalition of churches and synagogues with the motto "Faith and Action for Strength Together," for holding recent public meetings about discipline and black student achievement without inviting the School Board or superintendent Mike Grego to speak at the event.

"It's time to really work together, not to have meetings where a viewpoint is expressed without giving the School Board a chance to give our data," Lerner said. "If you want to question the data we give you, go ahead. We'll bring it. It's accurate, and under Dr. Grego's leadership and some staff and this School Board we are making progress. And it's time for some groups in the community to recognize that and work with us," she said.

Representatives from the groups said Tuesday that they were confused by Lerner's comments.

Amir Whitaker, a staff lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said board members and Grego were invited to an event in December — and several attended. Grego promised publicly at the meeting to reduce the number of days a student could be suspended.

Johnny Watson, a member of FAST, said that their meeting Monday was scheduled on a date that Grego requested — and then Grego canceled. A district spokeswoman attended the FAST meeting, while Grego and a few board members went to an event at Gibbs High School.

Whitaker said board members also have been no-shows at other events. Last year, board members were invited to FAST's annual Nehemiah Action Assembly at Tropicana Field, but only Lerner attended. About 3,000 people turned out for the event, where FAST called for changes to discipline policies.

The back-biting threatened to overshadow the changes made Tuesday to the district's discipline policy. Speaking at the board meeting, Grego said it was the start of changing "the culture and some of these practices."

The policy reduces the number of days a student can be suspended out of school from a mandatory 10 days to no more than five days for "reassignable and expellable" offenses. It also prohibits students from being suspended out of school for more than five days for any offense. And students will be able to make up their school work without a grade penalty. The policy is expected to come back in March for final approval.

Board member Rene Flowers said the school district has been working on discipline issues "for some time."

"I think the changes are movement in the right direction," she said.

Lerner said after the meeting that she thinks the district is listening to concerns and acknowledged that further improvement is needed. "I want to decrease out-of-school suspensions as much as we can," she said.

But some black leaders are calling on the board to stop the practice altogether. They also said their concerns about black student achievement have been met for years with denial and blame.

On Monday night, FAST and the Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students, or COQEBS, joined together for a call to end out-of-school suspensions and arrests for disorderly conduct. The NAACP's St. Petersburg branch will discuss Saturday whether to join the effort.

"We're sick and tired of our kids not getting the education they deserve," said Robert Ward, pastor of Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, where the event was held. About 50 people attended, many of them parents and grandparents.

Ward cited a yearlong Tampa Bay Times investigation, "Failure Factories," which showed how the district abandoned integration efforts in 2007 and then failed to follow through with promised resources for five elementary schools that became predominantly poor and black.

The series found that black students in Pinellas County are suspended out of school at four times the rate of other children — one of the widest disparities in Florida. It noted that other large school districts stopped punishing students academically for missing school because it needlessly set them back.

In five years, black students in Pinellas lost a combined 45,942 school days to suspensions for minor offenses. White students, who outnumber black students 3 to 1 in Pinellas, lost 28,665 days by comparison.

With Tuesday's policy change, district officials took another step to address some of those issues. They already had been piloting some disciplinary changes in schools countywide. Those efforts are paying off, district leaders said.

They said that in the first three months of this school year there was an 18 percent reduction in referrals to all students, a 19 percent reduction of referrals issued to black students, and a 13 percent reduction in out-of-school suspensions for black students. They also said there has been a 45 percent reduction in arrests over the last three school years.

But black leaders said the district can do more. They pointed to the Miami-Dade school system, which stopped giving out-of-school suspensions last year, instead sending students to "Success Centers" staffed by teachers and counselors.

"This is a good step forward, but it is a baby step," Flo Young, of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, said of the reduction in suspension days. "If Miami-Dade can do it, why can't Pinellas County?"

Grego said after the board meeting Tuesday that he can't just stop giving out-of-school suspensions. An alternative setting has to be available for students who misbehave.

"We look forward to partners who would want to step forward and say, 'Let's have an alternative to school suspension perhaps at a church or other places. Those are some of the practices we're looking at,'" he said.

Pinellas had alternative behavior centers that drastically cut down on the number of black children suspended from middle schools in the mid 1980s, only to discontinue them within a few years.

The district also created on-campus suspension centers in the late 1990s that were praised as a national model for keeping order in schools while ensuring black children still got a good education. But the School Board would not fund one of them in full — they cost less than $100,000 apiece — and discontinued the program after outside money ran out in 2008.

Staff Writers Colleen Wright and Lisa Gartner contributed to this story. Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at [email protected] Follow @Fitz_ly.

Comments

Epilogue: Tampa’s Mother Teresa, Delia Sanchez, remembered as child welfare champion

Delia P. Sanchez collected things — purses, shoes, newspapers. She hid them away in a storage unit, out of sight from her tidy husband. She had her reasons. And not one of them was selfish. The extra accessories? Those were for the mothers of...
Updated: 4 hours ago
A USF milestone: Three new dorms, more than 6,300 students living on campus

A USF milestone: Three new dorms, more than 6,300 students living on campus

TAMPA — The paint on Pinnacle Hall’s white-and-gold walls still smelled fresh as Lilly Myskey led a parade of parents and bins and bags down the hall toward her new room at the University of South Florida. "Speaking of the building being brand-new, L...
Published: 08/17/18
Florida girl denied school lunch because she was 15 cents short, mother says

Florida girl denied school lunch because she was 15 cents short, mother says

A sophomore at University High School in Volusia County was denied lunch on her first day of school Tuesday because she owed 15 cents, according to WKMG in Orlando.The girl’s mother, Kimberly Aiken, told WKMG a cashier in the school’s lunchroom threw...
Published: 08/16/18
Brooksville pastor challenges longtime principal trying for reelection to Hernando’s District 5 School Board seat

Brooksville pastor challenges longtime principal trying for reelection to Hernando’s District 5 School Board seat

Hernando County School Board District 5 incumbent Susan Duval seconded the motion to fire superintendent Lori Romano on June 12. And that’s why Joe Santerelli said he filed to run against her about a week later.A week after that, the local pastor spo...
Published: 08/15/18
Updated: 08/17/18
Candidates for Hernando’s District 3 School Board seat talk mental health, technical education

Candidates for Hernando’s District 3 School Board seat talk mental health, technical education

As Hernando County School Board member Beth Narverud makes her run for a spot on the County Commission, three hopefuls are running to fill her District 3 seat.One is Jimmy Lodato, a Tampa native and 19-year Hernando resident. Retired from a career in...
Published: 08/15/18
Updated: 08/17/18
Incumbent chairman and newcomer battle for Hernando’s District 1 School Board seat

Incumbent chairman and newcomer battle for Hernando’s District 1 School Board seat

Mark Johnson was elected to the Hernando County School Board in 2014. He said his successful track record, combined with local business savvy, make him the clear choice over Catherine "Kay" Hatch for the District 1 seat."It’s not just an opportunity ...
Published: 08/15/18
Updated: 08/17/18
Corbett Prep marks 50th year with compassionate stories, family love

Corbett Prep marks 50th year with compassionate stories, family love

TAMPA — Sammi Borosh sat Tuesday afternoon in one of those tiny chairs for kindergartners and looked across the table at four of her former teachers — and her eyes misted.Borosh said she loved those four ladies and she loved the school where they tau...
Published: 08/15/18
For this Marjory Stoneman Douglas student, start of school is ‘beginning of the end’

For this Marjory Stoneman Douglas student, start of school is ‘beginning of the end’

Barbara Ojago saw her grandson’s first day back at school as the beginning of the end.Her grandson, Emea, will finish his senior year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland. But Emea returns to a school forever changed by a former student he pe...
Published: 08/15/18
Pinellas plans new arts and gifted magnet schools in north county

Pinellas plans new arts and gifted magnet schools in north county

Next school year, if all goes according to plan, two new programs will expand the slate of options for Pinellas County elementary students — a conservatory for the arts in Clearwater and a gifted center in Palm Harbor.The programs, which will go befo...
Published: 08/15/18
Report card on ousted Hernando schools superintendent shows little change from last year

Report card on ousted Hernando schools superintendent shows little change from last year

BROOKSVILLE — Two months after firing superintendent Lori Romano, the Hernando County School Board on Tuesday reviewed results of a second district-wide survey to evaluate her performance, finding that little changed from last year.Romano’s overall a...
Published: 08/15/18