Give Pinellas School Board members Mary Brown and Nina Hayden credit. They had the courage to say some unpleasant truths about school discipline and race during last week's board retreat. Publicly acknowledging the problem is the first step toward addressing it.
Brown brought up what she called "the elephant in the room.'' She said white teachers in south Pinellas have told her they feel intimidated by black students, particularly black young men. Hayden agreed and said that school is often a testing ground for black males. Other community education leaders then acknowledged that there are particular issues involving the behavior of black students and said both black and white teachers can feel intimidated.
The frank assessments by Brown and Hayden demonstrate the value of diversity on the School Board. Brown and Hayden are the only African-American members of the seven-member board. Would an all-white board have confronted the same concerns so directly?
That very diversity is disappearing in many Pinellas public schools as they rapidly resegregate. The reality, particularly in south Pinellas, is that it is not uncommon for white teachers to be leading classes that are majority African-American. "We have had black students tell white teachers, 'We don't want you here because this is a black school,' '' Brown said. "We have to deal with this right up front so students won't feel they're in control.''
There are no easy answers. While some white teachers feel intimidated, black students in Pinellas already are disciplined and suspended at far higher rates than other groups. Black students account for 19 percent of total enrollment, but they represent roughly 40 percent of all suspensions and more than half of all student arrests.
Tackling this situation will require a concerted effort by the entire community. Teachers should get the training they need to deal with these issues so that they can discipline fairly and equitably but also keep control in their classrooms with the support of their principals. Parents need to send their children to school ready and willing to learn. And students need to respect their class and their teacher. Only with mutual respect and understanding can the schools move forward.
As the board members made clear, not talking about these issues won't make them go away. Fixing the problems will take leadership, courage and understanding. Last week's comments by two courageous School Board members are a good start.