Pinellas County School Board members made it easier Tuesday for principals to get dangerous students out of the classroom.
Before, a student could be charged with a serious crime one day and wind up back in class the next. Convicted felons also could end up in the classroom.
Now, students charged with serious crimes can be suspended, and convicts can be expelled.
These are perhaps the most significant changes to the Code of Student Conduct. The board hopes they will send a message to parents and students that safety is a prime goal.
"I'd rather protect the student in the classroom, frankly, and hope the police can handle the community problem," board member Lee Benjamin said.
Under the new rule, principals can suspend students who formally have been charged with violent conduct, if the principal decides the incident has an "adverse impact on the educational program, discipline or welfare of the school."
Those charges include rape or sexual battery, lewd and lascivious act on a child younger than 14, carrying a concealed weapon, aggravated battery and battery on an elected school official or school system employee.
The suspension would last 10 days but could be extended by Superintendent Howard Hinesley until the charge is adjudicated.
While that will remove the student from the traditional school, he or she still will be attending a day or night alternative school.
If the student is found guilty, Hinesley can recommend he or she be expelled. However, if the student is found innocent or pleads no contest or if adjudication is withheld, he or she can return to the traditional school.
The change takes advantage of a state law permitting school suspensions of those accused of felonies. The district hasn't been doing that because former School Board attorney Bruce Taylor had said it would be too hard to prove an out-of-school offense was disruptive in school.
But under a new interpretation of the law, the process does not have to be so formal, Hinesley has said.
Debbie Bacheller, a member of the school advisory councils at Bay Point Elementary and Middle schools, said after the meeting that the School Board's action may be a start.
But she worries about other safety issues she says the board still needs to address.
"Children are afraid to go in the bathrooms, because things happen in the bathrooms," Bacheller said. "Kids who are doing these things aren't necessarily felons."
Bacheller said other problems such as the inability to discover who commits some acts of violence against students and the difficulties of managing large campuses also need to be fixed.
Another change in the conduct code that board members approved Tuesday was designed to make schools safer, the board said.
Now, suspended students will have fewer avenues to appeal their suspensions. Under the new rule, they will be able to appeal up only one level _ to their area superintendent. Before, students could appeal a suspension all the way to the School Board.
Benjamin said allowing students to appeal suspensions to the board was insulting to administrators and would make it appear that board members don't trust the principals' judgment.
"These people are not suspending students because they enjoy suspending students," Benjamin said. "I think we are doing severe damage to this school system when we question their integrity."
However, members of Congregations United for Community Action, a grass-roots community action group composed of 32 churches from southern Pinellas, had asked the board to maintain the appeals process.
Limiting the appeal to one level, said the Rev. Earl Smith of Lakeview Presbyterian Church, would diminish individual student rights. The change also would mean there is no review of the charges, which could leave open the possibility of bias on the part of administrators. In addition, it would take any possibility of citizen review out of the process, he said.
Hinesley, however, said there has never been a review of the charges in the appeals process. Even in cases that reached the School Board, members heard only from the principal and student and never reopened the investigation.
Many people thought otherwise, which was part of the problem with the old process, Hinesley said. The new approach won't be so misleading, he said.
Two thousand sixty-five Pinellas County youths were arrested on felony charges in 1993-94.
During that time, 1,440 youths were sentenced for felonies.
If all arrested youths were suspended for 10 days, the school district would have to find an out-of-school facility as big as a high school (with comparable staff) to house them.
1993-94 felony charges:
Murder / manslaughter 8
Attempted murder 3
Sexual battery 50
Other sex offenses 27
Armed robbery 41
Other robbery 66
Auto theft 126
Grand larceny 147
Receiving stolen property 28
Concealed firearm 53
Aggravated assault / battery 332
Drugs (not marijuana) 125
Resisting arrest with violence 14
Shooting / throwing missile 44