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Students' disrespect can pass as racism in classrooms

Tracey Keim had been a bartender for years and thought she'd heard it all.

But even the crustiest of gutter-mouthed drunks would have been hard-pressed to match the verbal barrage unleashed by a 15-year-old in Keim's 10th-grade English class last fall.

It was the first day of school at St. Petersburg High, and the student, who was black, was trying to rattle Keim, 40, who is white.

"Listen," Keim said, "you can't yell like that. I work really hard not to interrupt you guys, and I … "

"F--- YOOOUUUU!!!" the girl bellowed.

Some of the nouns and adjectives that followed were standard issue. A few referred to Keim's anatomy. Others, such as "white bitch," touched on the color of her skin.

Racist? Yes and no, Keim said.

"I think she was just saying 'white bitch' because that's what she could come up with. I think she was just being as outrageous as possible."

Keim shared her story in the aftermath of provocative statements made recently by Pinellas School Board member Mary Brown, who said during the board's annual retreat that the district needed to address "the elephant in the room" — persistent complaints that black students in south Pinellas schools are intimidating white teachers.

In a series of interviews with south county teachers, the St. Petersburg Times found many agreed with Keim, saying kids tend to dish out whatever they think will rile teachers the most. Sometimes, the dish comes with a racist edge.

Barbara Thornton, associate superintendent for high school programs, thinks such over-the-top comments are rare. And while she says she doesn't doubt Brown's sincerity, racially motivated slurs are beyond the realm of her experience.

"I've never in my 36 years in this district felt intimidated by a black child," said the former Largo High principal, who is white.

Superintendent Julie Janssen, who also is white and was an assistant principal at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg, said she never experienced racially motivated aggression either.

"I honestly never felt threatened, even when I stayed late (at school)," Janssen said. "I sometimes took kids home. For me, it's never been a problem."

• • •

In south Pinellas, it's a fact that a largely white, middle-class teaching corps is teaching a student body that is increasingly poor and black. Many of those teachers say they have been bombarded by rude behavior from black students.

But almost all of them said Brown's remarks didn't quite hit the mark.

It's not racism, the teachers say. It's rampant disrespect and dysfunction.

They say there are far too many wounded, out-of-control kids, both black and white. And with the return to neighborhood schools, fears are mounting that those students are being concentrated in a handful of schools and disrupting them to the point of paralysis.

In south Pinellas, those students happen to be black.

"You go to Gibbs (High), you go to John Hopkins (Middle) … and you'll see it," said Sherry Howard, a media assistant at John Hopkins who is black, referring to the behavior of black students. "You shouldn't be coming to school wondering what's going to happen, what kind of fights, what kind of nonsense."

The teachers' concerns are rooted in the always shaky ground of race. There's reality, perceptions of reality, and perceptions that become reality.

Beyond that, questions and complications mount. How much of the problem behavior escalates because of poor classroom management? How much can be blamed on school administrators who don't mete out discipline consistently, or don't back up teachers?

How often do white teachers set off black students with unintentional sleights? How often do they do it intentionally? Could better training for teachers help?

Would it be effective to hire more black teachers?

"I don't know what the answer is," Howard said. "I just know if we keep going in this direction, we are never going to educate our kids to the level they deserve."

• • •

Earlier this year, Karen Kisten was in the classroom she shares with another Gibbs High teacher when her colleague asked a girl to sit down.

The girl, who was black, refused. She then pointed to Kisten and the other teacher, both of whom are white, and said, "You don't belong here. This is a black school."

Kisten, a 37-year veteran who began teaching before Pinellas schools integrated in 1971, was shocked and saddened. She knew the girl from a previous teaching stint at Riviera Middle School.

"I took her outside and said, 'What has happened to you?' " said Kisten, who told her story to Mary Brown.

The girl rolled her eyes.

Teachers like Kisten have been dealing with unruly kids forever. But some south county teachers worry that things may be reaching a tipping point.

After decades of court-ordered desegregation, when the Pinellas school district capped black student enrollment at 42 percent, the demographics in south Pinellas schools are shifting rapidly. Two years ago, no south county schools had a black majority.

Now, nine do. Five more will join them soon.

Brown, who opposed the return to neighborhood schools, said she raised the teacher-intimidation issue in part to prod the district to fulfill its promise to south Pinellas. To smooth the transition to neighborhood schools, the School Board had said it would send more resources to schools with fast-rising numbers of low-income kids.

"I will not let the board forget that," Brown said.

Some schools were on edge before the demographic shift.

Two years ago, teacher frustration boiled over at Gibbs in the wake of rampant vandalism and disturbing tales of student defiance. In an unsigned letter to then superintendent Clayton Wilcox, teachers said they were fearful. Among other complaints, they said some black students called white teachers racist when the teachers asked them to follow the rules.

Since then, the percentage of black students at Gibbs has risen from 43 to 51 percent. Frustration still simmers. Gibbs produced 42 teacher transfer requests last year, more than any other school in Pinellas.

A few miles away at Boca Ciega High, the percentage of black students has risen from 38 to 44 percent in four years.

Former Boca Ciega English teacher Y'Desha Alsup, who is black, said she could see the change.

In the past, kids with neighborhood feuds would go their separate ways when they got on different buses to go to different schools, she said. Not anymore.

"A lot of neighborhood stuff started coming in," said Alsup, who left the district in January to pursue a doctoral degree. "A lot of stuff that had nothing to do with school."

But she said the tension never spilled over into her classes.

"I believe it has a lot to do with my demeanor with my students," Alsup said. "I treated them with the utmost respect."

Other south Pinellas teachers, though, said that no matter how respectful teachers are toward students, some students aren't respectful in return.

"There are kids who do not learn to respect any authority whatsoever," said James Masson, a former Gibbs teacher who's now at Pinellas Park High. "Most of the kids (at Gibbs) were wonderful and nice. But there are kids, like at every school, who were defiant."

Like Keim, Masson said he was inclined to think that on those occasions when defiance sported a racial edge, the kids were motivated not by racism, but by a desire to push the envelope. In the context of a black student and a white teacher, a racist barb raises defiance to a higher level.

Harry Brown, the district's deputy superintendent in charge of curriculum, agreed kids will use whatever weapons are in their arsenal. At affluent, majority-white Palm Harbor University High, where Brown served as principal, students occasionally threatened teachers with lawsuits, he said.

• • •

Sometimes, what appears to be an impossible situation ends up a turning point.

The girl who cursed Tracey Keim, the St. Petersburg High teacher, was suspended for five days. When she returned to school, Keim took her aside and said, "Let's start over."

The girl is now one of the best writers in the class. She recently attended a writers workshop at the Poynter Institute and is headed to a leadership retreat for St. Petersburg High students later this month.

She has not raised her voice to Keim since.

Ron Matus can be reached at Donna Winchester can be reached at

An atmosphere of respect?

The Pinellas school district conducts a "climate survey" annually asking teachers the extent to which they agree or disagree with statements about their schools. Below are the percentages of high school teachers who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: "An atmosphere of respect, trust and pride toward adults exists at this school."

2006 2007 2008
Boca Ciega 31.1 29 19.3
Clearwater 51.9 51 63.4
Countryside 62.7 56 67
Dixie Hollins 52.4 40 42.2
Dunedin 27.6 52.7 43.6
East Lake 69.6 59 68.9
Gibbs 31.9 22 32.5
Lakewood 32.1 20 36.8
Largo 28.8 51 41.6
Northeast 52.6 49 51.7
Osceola 39.3 26 40.9
Palm Harbor 65.1 86 64.4
Pinellas Park 49.4 38 56.8
St. Petersburg 65.6 45 66.9
Seminole 72.9 68 40.4
Tarpon Springs 45.2 65 35.3

Source: Pinellas County School District

A rise in percentage of black students

Since the Pinellas school district lifted its ratio on the number of African-American students who can attend a particular school, the percentage of black students has risen considerably at some south county high schools.

White Black White Black White Black White Black
Boca Ciega 54.6 38.1 51.8 40.1 48.5 42.1 45.0 44.2
Dixie Hollins 65.2 23.3 61.3 26.3 60.5 25.4 62.8 19.9
Gibbs/ 49.3 40.4 46.5 38.8 42.4 43.1 35.3 50.7
Lakewood 46.7 39.3 45.8 40.0 41.6 44.9 37.6 48.0
Northeast 67.8 17.8 69.1 16.9 68.3 17.0 69.0 15.0
St. Petersburg 60.4 25.9 59.7 26.4 58.7 27.4 60.7 24.8
Districtwide 66.8 18.8 65.4 18.9 63.9 19.1 62.8 19.2

Source: Florida Department of Education

Students' disrespect can pass as racism in classrooms 03/13/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 9:57am]
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