Friday, July 20, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: Pinellas takes positive steps on student discipline

The Pinellas County School District finally appears to be headed in the right direction on overhauling discipline policies that have been unequally applied to black students. The School Board agreed this week to reduce the number of days students can be suspended out of school and to other changes aimed at refocusing on education rather than punitive punishment. But there is more to be done, and black families and civil rights groups should continue to demand fairer treatment for minority students and a greater investment in more progressive approaches to student discipline.

The discipline trends have been going the wrong way in Pinellas for years, driven by shortsighted spending decisions and a stubborn refusal to adopt common practices used in many other large school districts in Florida. The Tampa Bay Times' "Failure Factories" series last year documented that black students were given out-of-school suspensions at four times the rate of other students between 2010 and 2015. More than half of the suspensions given to black students were for vague infractions such as "not cooperating" or "class disruption'' rather than for violent offenses. And black students were 17 percent more likely to be suspended in Pinellas than in Hillsborough County, 41 percent more likely than in Palm Beach County and 85 percent more likely than in Miami-Dade. The evidence is overwhelming that Pinellas disproportionately punished black students and that issues such as crime, poverty and other societal factors are no defense.

Now Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego and the School Board are taking some meaningful steps toward addressing the disparities. A new policy, which the board is expected to give final approval to next month, will reduce the number of days any student can be suspended out of school for "reassignable and expellable'' offenses from a mandatory 10 days to a maximum of five days. No student will be suspended out of school for more than five days for any offense. Equally important is that Pinellas will drop its punitive policy that prevents suspended students from getting full credit for makeup work, a practice other districts already have ended.

The school district points to positive trends in testing some disciplinary changes, reporting a 19 percent reduction in referrals and a 13 percent reduction in out-of-school suspensions for black students for the first three months of this school year. That suggests Grego and school principals are focused on the discipline disparities and that the real issue has been a failure in commitment and policy rather than societal changes. But it is going to take a sustained commitment and more money to make a permanent difference.

Pinellas remains one of just two of Florida's 20 largest school districts that does not use a discipline matrix to help ensure punishments are more uniform and colorblind, and that issue deserves more attention. The district also should adopt Miami-Dade's policy of banning out-of-school suspensions, which serve no academic purpose. In the 1980s and '90s, Pinellas had various alternative centers where suspended students were sent to continue their academic work. But those efforts were abandoned at least in part to save money, and Grego appropriately notes that the district cannot ban out-of-school suspensions until it comes up with a workable alternative.

That is just one reason why organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center; FAST, a coalition of churches and synagogues; the Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students, which has asked a judge to resurrect a 15-year-old class-action lawsuit; and the NAACP's St. Petersburg branch cannot let up. Don't cave to School Board member Linda Lerner's plea that everyone just get along and lock arms with the district. The Pinellas Education Foundation, the nonprofit that should be more directly helping minority students who have been unequally treated, already fills the role of district apologist.

These systemic failures that disadvantaged black students in Pinellas County played out over years. As encouraging as the latest discipline trends appear, they have to be sustained. There should be broader policy changes and a greater financial commitment to alternative programs. Three of the seven School Board seats will be on the ballot in August, and it will take a concerted effort to ensure these issues remain at the top of voters' minds as they evaluate the candidates and their commitment to equal treatment for all students.

Comments
Editorial: Scott should order investigation of concealed weapons permitting

Editorial: Scott should order investigation of concealed weapons permitting

To his credit, Gov. Rick Scott says he is considering requests to order an independent investigation of how Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam’s office screens applications for concealed weapon permits. It’s a reasonable request, and the governor h...
Published: 07/18/18
Editorial: Algae blooms, toll woes and beach battles -- Florida’s fouled up summer

Editorial: Algae blooms, toll woes and beach battles -- Florida’s fouled up summer

July in Florida. The height of summer tourist season. Rental cars clog the highways and tourists crowd the beaches, motels and all-you-can-eat shrimp joints. Many of our neighbors are off to North Carolina or somewhere cooler. So it’s an awfully inco...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Editorial: Sacrificing two kayaks and a Toyota for free speech

Editorial: Sacrificing two kayaks and a Toyota for free speech

Maggy Hurchalla joked this spring that all she could offer a billionaire who won a $4.4 million judgment against her after she exercised her free speech rights were "two kayaks and an aging Toyota.’’ The billionaire didn’t laugh. This week, Martin Co...
Published: 07/17/18
Updated: 07/18/18
Editorial: Trump sides with Putin over America

Editorial: Trump sides with Putin over America

In one of the most surreal news conferences of our time, President Donald Trump actually stood next to Russian President Vladimir Putin Monday and called the federal investigation into Russia’s meddling into the 2016 election "a disaster for our coun...
Published: 07/16/18
Editorial: A vote for preserving waterfront parks by St. Petersburg City Council

Editorial: A vote for preserving waterfront parks by St. Petersburg City Council

The St. Petersburg City Council made the appropriate but difficult decision to reject a contract with renowned artist Janet Echelman for one of her aerial sculptures. It would be wonderful for the city to have one of her signature works, but Spa Beac...
Published: 07/13/18

‘Everybody needed to know what happened’

The brutal murder of Emmett Till, a black Chicago youth, in Mississippi nearly 63 years ago went unpunished, but not forgotten. A decision by his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to allow an open casket at Emmett’s Chicago funeral represented an act of def...
Published: 07/13/18
Editorial: Personal bias taints Florida’s clemency system

Editorial: Personal bias taints Florida’s clemency system

A recent exchange between the governor and Cabinet and a felon seeking to have his civil rights restored underscores the arbitrary unfairness of Florida’s clemency system. A long waiting period, a ridiculous backlog of cases and elected officials who...
Published: 07/11/18
Updated: 07/13/18

Trump should work with Congress on immigration

Donald Trump’s resounding victory in the 2016 presidential election came at least in part because the New York businessman grasped the disconnect between how millions of Americans and the political establishments of both parties felt about immigratio...
Published: 07/11/18
Updated: 07/13/18
Editorial: Trump’s trade war hurts American consumers

Editorial: Trump’s trade war hurts American consumers

Voters who looked to Donald Trump to make America great might want to look at their wallets. The president escalated his global trade war this week, threatening new tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports — everything from seafood, beef and ...
Published: 07/11/18
Updated: 07/12/18
Editorial: Rays stadium cost should be fairly shared

Editorial: Rays stadium cost should be fairly shared

The imaginative Ybor City ballpark proposed by the Tampa Bay Rays fits nicely into the 21st century vision of a sophisticated city and would secure major league baseball’s future for the entire region. It also carries an eye-catching cost that will h...
Published: 07/11/18
Updated: 07/12/18