Anxiety spread across the Pinellas County School District last school year when mass discipline problems broke out at John Hopkins Middle School.
Many worried it went beyond one school. But the district's annual suspension report released last week showed the number of out-of-school suspensions dropped 12.1 percent from the 2008-09 school year. And the number of individual students suspended dropped 9.7 percent.
"I really believed that it was an anomaly," superintendent Julie Janssen said of John Hopkins. "I felt that then. Because for the most part, most schools and kids really do want to do the right thing."
It's tough to pinpoint an exact catalyst for the drop in suspension rates, but Janssen said administrators were more focused on maintaining school order in light of the problems. And possibly, students adjusted to stricter standards.
Nevertheless, district officials redoubled their efforts this summer to get all schools on the same page on how to handle discipline.
Last week, 26 teams met for three days of training to learn how to curb bad behavior before it escalates, requiring a visit to the principal or, worse, suspension.
In all, 9,751 students were suspended 19,701 times during the last school year.
In a district where just 18.6 percent of students are black, they accounted for 43 percent of the out-of-school suspensions last year.
"The majority of students we suspend are those who can least likely afford to be out of class," said Susan Schilt, a teacher training educators on the new disciplinary approach.
At last count, black students graduated at a rate of 64.9 percent, far below the 83.1 percent rate for whites.
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Is uttering the word "frickin' " profanity?
What about when it's said by an angry middle school student, and, in the ears of a nearby teacher, sounds uncannily like the F word?
Seven adults from Dunedin Highland Middle School debated this seemingly simple question. Profanity and obscene language were among the top offenses leading to suspensions at Dunedin along with fighting and skipping class.
The adults — three counselors, a behavioral specialist, a social worker, an assistant principal and a principal — tried to agree on a definition.
"If it can be misunderstood as offensive, then we don't tolerate it," concluded assistant principal Daphne Miles.
The district's discipline effort asks school staffs to clearly communicate expectations to students and reward good behavior — like having teachers call home to brag about a student's actions. Teachers also are being trained to recognize academic and personal struggles before handing out punishment.
This spring, district leaders were caught by surprise when reports erupted about safety issues at John Hopkins in St. Petersburg. In the recent suspension figures, Hopkins showed one of the biggest increases, its rate climbing from 19.4 percent to 31.1 percent.
Suspension numbers can be an important clue, but high numbers can show a place spinning out of control, or one getting its house in order. Low numbers can mean an orderly school — or one that's hiding problems.
At James Sanderlin Elementary in St. Petersburg, where last year the suspension rate was 20.5 percent, the highest of the district's elementaries, assistant principal Suzette Burns said the school took a zero-tolerance approach to physical aggression.
Students were automatically referred to the office, facing a hierarchy of consequences, the last of which was suspension.
"We don't suspend to suspend," Burns said. "We feel very strongly that it's important for our kids to be in school. But it's also important to be safe."
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Schilt knocked over a chair.
If she were a student, Schilt said, the punishment — being sent to the principal's office — might be exactly her goal.
"Guaranteed to get me out of class," said Schilt. "Very little energy and I got what I wanted."
Miss class, miss a lesson, miss a test.
Suspensions, timeouts, expulsions often fail to discover motivation, Schilt said, and backfire. Under the new approach, teachers are being urged to monitor and track misbehavior to identify patterns and respond in ways that will keep students in class.
Pinellas School Board member Linda Lerner said she likes the new push, but worries that the emphasis on keeping students in the classroom may have a negative affect on other interventions like moving a special education student into a more restrictive environment in a timely fashion.
"I'd like to hear more cases where it was successful," she said.
Principals, however, are never directed to stop suspending students, Janssen said. "Teachers don't quit trying to work with kids. It's part of what they do every single day."
Times staff writer Ron Matus contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or [email protected]