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Program for suspended students worth keeping

Published Sep. 16, 2005

Suspend a high school student for misbehaving, and there is an excellent chance that student will treat the punishment like a minivacation and hang out in the streets where it's easy to find more trouble. Clearwater High School has an innovative program aimed at breaking that cycle, and the Pinellas School Board needs to make a modest investment to keep the experiment working.

The Off Campus Intervention Program, designed by Clearwater High's School Advisory Committee, debuted last year as a coordinated effort to keep suspended students in school instead of roaming their neighborhoods. The students spend at least five days in a classroom isolated from their classmates. They report there in the morning, and they remain there until they go home. Lunch is brought to them from the cafeteria. They receive at least four hours of academic instruction from a teacher each day. Just as important, the students are offered individual, group and family counseling from a qualified counselor who helps the students resolve the problems that cause them to misbehave.

The theory is simple: Focus on supervising problem students and preventing future outbursts instead of leaving them unsupervised and exposed to temptations that lead to more trouble.

Last year's results indicate the program has enormous potential. While eight of the county's 15 high schools saw an increase in suspensions during the first semester of the 1995-1996 school year, Clearwater High's suspensions for the year dropped 40 percent. Only 11 of the 157 students referred to the program refused to participate and served their suspensions off school grounds. Two of every three students who completed the program did not commit any more offenses that called for suspension.

But the Off Campus Intervention Program will be a one-year flash in the pan unless county school officials find $35,000 to keep it going. Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice, which helped pay for the counseling portion of the program last year with a $57,000 grant, will not kick in any money this year. The state says it is spending its money on other programs that affected more students at less cost.

That leaves this excellent program hanging by a thread. The teacher hired specifically for the program is in limbo. County administrators are expected to discuss the situation this week. Any concerns they have about the fairness of giving Clearwater High the money to continue its efforts are misguided. This is an experiment that could become the model for other schools, and it needs more time to develop. David Fellows, the Clearwater High School Advisory Committee chairman, said a manual for the program has been written and that he hopes other schools can duplicate this effort. He said there was not enough time to seek private sources to replace the state money.

A school system that has just given teachers more authority to remove chronically disruptive students from class and adopted tougher discipline rules should not turn its back on prevention. It would be shortsighted to fail to come up with $35,000 to keep Clearwater High's Off Campus Intervention Program. This is a modest investment that promises immediate returns for Clearwater students and the possibility for even greater rewards for the entire school system.