Pinellas schools reconsider black student discipline

The Pinellas County School Board is poised to consider a new legal agreement that supporters say will change how it deals with black student discipline.

Both sides in the district's long-running desegregation case said the proposed "memorandum of understanding," reached last week after months of mediation, will compel the district to chip away at behaviors and practices that have led it to suspend black students at far higher rates than students of any other race.

They also say it will lead the district to coordinate more uniform arrest policies among the slew of different law enforcement agencies that oversee school resource officers.

"It's a different day. It's no more just throwing the handcuffs on," said Watson Haynes, co-chair of a community group working with the plaintiffs in Bradley vs. the Pinellas County School Board. Principals and school resource officers will be "thinking about options, and utilizing those options."

Like a similar agreement hammered out last summer over black student achievement, the draft on discipline doesn't offer many specifics. And it leaves the grunt work of making changes to individual schools, which must craft their own behavior plans.

Ray Tampa, president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP, noted the draft repeatedly refers to "aspirational goals."

"That's a legal term," Tampa said. "We aspire to do it, but if we don't do it, so be it, we aspired to do it."

Tampa said the parties should have sought measurable goals — say, reducing arrests by a certain percentage by a set date — and listed specific action steps, such as assigning students to Saturday schools instead of giving them out-of-school suspensions.

If some people think the draft is lacking, countered Haynes, "pick up the phone, call a lawyer and sue." He said the plaintiffs trust superintendent Julie Janssen, who played an active role in mediation, will follow through with changes that make a difference. "It's a matter of faith," he said.

The memorandum is the latest development in the Bradley case, which anchors the legal fight over integration of Pinellas schools. The School Board must approve the memorandum before it can take effect, and is slated to discuss it at a May 20 workshop.

The numbers that prompted the draft have been a sore spot for years. Black students are 19 percent of the student body but last year they received 46 percent of all out-of-school suspensions. Arrest numbers are also disproportionate.

Of the 100 students arrested at John Hopkins Middle School between Sept. 1 and March 31, 97 were black. About 56 percent of the school's students are black.

Both sides said mediation took on added urgency after news broke in early March about chaotic conditions and frequent brawls at Hopkins.

The seven-page draft emphasizes that improving behavior is not the responsibility of schools alone. The goals "require efforts from the district, students, parents and the community."

The draft is vague about how arrest policy will change, saying it will "encourage" schools and resource officers to pursue alternative punishments — something most if not all already try to do.

It is "accepted practice" for St. Petersburg's school resource officers to arrest students only as a last resort, said Police Department spokesman Bill Proffitt.

Still, both sides say the agreement will force the district to devote more attention to black student discipline and behavior improvement, and hold officials accountable.

The draft requires each school to consider discipline data for black students relative to students of other races, and to use strategies that will improve discipline for all students, including blacks. It also requires the mediation parties to meet twice a year to review data, check progress and make changes.

"There will be improvement across the board as a result of what has taken place at the mediation table," said School Board attorney Jim Robinson.

Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Pinellas schools reconsider black student discipline 04/30/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 30, 2010 12:52am]

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