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District hears suspension frustrations

Students, parents and children's advocates vented their frustrations with school suspension policies to administrators from the Pinellas School District on Tuesday night.

School officials say they're suspending defiant students to keep peace in the classroom. But what happens is that black students are unfairly suspended, the Rev. Wayne Thompson told administrators.

Officials gathered at the First Baptist Institutional Church, 3144 Third Ave. S, to discuss with members of the Churches United for Community Action the issue of school suspensions.

Audience members raised concerns about suspensions that included:

that some parents are not informed when their children are suspended;

the need to know at what point the parent is involved in behavior problems;

the perception that white students receive lesser punishments than do black students;

the differences in white and black culture and its effect on children's behavior;

the problem of teacher and student harassment; and,

the problem of being suspended in cases of self-defense.

The meeting was a follow-up to a Feb. 7 meeting with CUCA at which group members expressed concern about the failure of all children to leave elementary school with basic reading and math skills and the need for programs for suspended students. A district representative had assured group members that the school system will develop strategies for dealing with those problems.

Before audience members told administrators of their experiences Tuesday, Nancy Zambito, director of school operations, told them that these are violent times.

"It's a crazy world," she said. Students' behavior is a reflection of society, she said.

Zambito said a low socioeconomic level is the most common characteristic of suspended students. The next most common factor is a low reading level. "Race is way down the list," Zambito said.

But Thompson disagreed. School district figures show that in elementary, middle and high schools, the percentage of black students suspended exceeds the percentage of black students in those schools.

Thompson said he and other ministers have for several years been interceding for students in trouble at schools.

One mother told administrators that her daughter had been suspended from another school twice. Although she agreed with the reasons for the suspensions, she said she was upset because the school did not tell her. Her daughter was left to run around without supervision, she said.

"They allowed her to go home with a parent who wasn't a relative," she said.

Another mother said a teacher had called her daughter a "vegetable." When teachers insult children, she said, the students fight back and become disrespectful. "You don't degrade these children in front of other students," she said.

Zambito said, "I hear situations that should have never happened."

She also pointed out that the district recently has appointed Doretha Jackson to be a parent support person to bridge the gap between parents and the school system. Jackson can be reached at 893-2284.

But, "we are not going to solve this problem alone in the school system." Parents and society need to help, she said.

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