BROOKSVILLE — About a year ago, Cynthia Brown Jackson, the lead social worker for the Hernando County School District, met with focus groups of teachers and parents to explain some bleak statistics: The district's black students were disciplined far more often than their white peers.
Many in the teachers' groups were shocked, Jackson said. Some wondered about the stats' accuracy, or if they'd come out "because of that Black Lives Matter movement." Others said they never realized they may send black children to the principal's office more often.
But to parents of black students — ranging from those frequently disciplined to those rarely disciplined — the numbers felt like old news.
"'I grew up here,'" Jackson remembered some saying. "'That's just the way it's always been.'"
Jackson knew what they meant — the numbers hadn't surprised her, either. She grew up black in Brooksville, born a few years after the district desegregated in the late 1960s. One of her uncles taught at the black, segregated Moton High School. She was a senior in high school in 1988, when her older brother, pro football star Jerome Brown, helped defuse a Ku Klux Klan rally in town.
She knew that many people in the community consider these things of the past. But she saw how the county's history of racial inequality kept its hooks in local institutions.
Now, Jackson is part of a team listening to focus groups as part of an effort to fix the disciplinary gap and improve relationships with families. Judy Everett, a supervisor of exceptional student support services, spearheaded the project, and the district is working with the University of South Florida's Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support program.
They wanted to make discipline more fair at individual schools and understand how the problem worked at a systemic level. Two years into the project, they've started to see improvement in the three schools they've worked in, and they're expanding to three more.
Rebecca Webster, one of the USF consultants working with the district, said Hernando County is doing this work on a scale larger than any other district in the state.
"Your data doesn't change overnight, but we are seeing the impact on the data," Everett said. "I'll be singing this song as long as I'm here."
When Everett started work on the project in 2016, it felt like finding her way back to a path she left a quarter-century ago. In the early 1990s, she was working at the Eckerd Family Youth Alternatives wilderness camp, a therapeutic program for troubled boys, and moonlighting at a nearby juvenile justice facility. The boys at the camp were nearly all white; the ones in the justice facility, nearly all black. But their problems were much the same, she realized.
"It was clear that the difference between the two wasn't their behavior," she said. "It was that the Caucasian students had the opportunity to experience behavioral (and therapeutic) intervention along the way," while the black boys never got the same opportunities.
She planned to probe the gap in her doctoral dissertation. Then she had a baby, and other priorities took over. She eventually joined the Hernando County School District and helped it in the early 2000s become one of the first to work with the USF behavioral interventions program.
Then, two years ago, she was reviewing the district's annual Local Education Agency profile, which details data about students with disabilities. She noticed that black students were disciplined much more often than white students and decided to revisit the problem she left behind decades earlier. When she analyzed the numbers with USF consultants, they decided to look at the problem among all the district's students.
Those numbers showed a district-wide problem. According to the district's federally reported civil rights data from 2015 — the most recent year available — its 1,600 black students missed a total of nearly 1,200 days for out-of-school suspension, while its 15,000 white students missed a comparatively few 4,055 days. Nearly one-fifth of black students served at least one day of in-school suspension, a rate double that of white students.
Though pronounced, Hernando's suspension disparities were less severe than those elsewhere in the Tampa Bay area.
The average black student spent triple the time in out-of-school suspension compared to white peers in Hernando County, for example. That ratio was nearly five-to-one in Pinellas County schools and even higher in Hillsborough County schools, based on the same year's data. Pasco County schools had disparity rates close to Hernando's.
Overall, both black and white students in Hernando County got suspended more often than students in any other county in the area.
Everett and the consultants landed on a multi-tiered approach to close the discipline gap between black and white students. They assembled a task force that brought Jackson and others into the fold — community leaders, district administrators, faculty. Then they found a group of three pilot schools that had a disparity and the will to fix it: East Side Elementary School, West Hernando Middle School and Hernando High School.
Focus groups helped shape their approach. Everett said she was disappointed to hear examples of overt racism relayed by parents, but much of what they're up against is more subtle. Suspension rates are disproportional, but so are basic office referrals, which eat up chunks of class time and can upend a student's entire day.
She and Jackson said some black parents felt they had only negative interactions with school officials: Teachers called to say what students had done wrong but never to praise them, they said, or sometimes teachers never called at all.
They saw the same root problem at all three schools, with a consistency that surprised Everett: poor relationships between teachers and students, and between teachers and families.
Everett and Jackson gave the same hypothetical to illustrate how unconscious bias and cultural disconnect might dig disciplinary divides: Two girls — one white, one black — sit next to each other in class. Neither is doing her work. The teacher tells them to go back to work. The white girl rolls her eyes, flips her hair and silently goes back to whatever she was doing, and the teacher lets it slide. The black girl looks the teacher in the eye, rolls her neck and bluntly says, "I already did that." She winds up in the office.
Maybe that student was taught at home to look adults in the face when she talks, Jackson said. Maybe she's been told by her parents to speak loudly and clearly, lest she offend by mumbling. And maybe a white teacher interprets that response as disrespect.
"They don't want to be seen as racists, and sometimes they aren't racists," Jackson said. "Some staff say they never thought about it."
Angela Miller Royal, an assistant principal at Hernando High, said the school is encouraging teachers to have conversations with students about how they define respect.
"There's a generation gap, so what looks like respect to some of our seasoned teachers and our students can be very different," she said. "And it can be different across races, cultures."
But the simplest distillation of the problem may have come through focus groups with the students themselves. There, Everett said, they heard students ask for something that cost little money or time: that teachers listen to them.
Webster remembered a 16-year-old boy who admitted he sometimes came into class loud and disruptive.
In those moments, he wanted his teachers to ask what was wrong instead of yelling at him, he told them. "I just want to be helped."
Last spring at East Side Elementary, teachers and administrators called students' homes more often, armed with praise and good news. Hernando High gave teachers new training on deescalation and classroom management, and encouraged them to prioritize conversation over discipline for low-level disruptions.
The high school also developed clubs to meet on early-release days, so students could build relationships with teachers, staff and other students they might not otherwise see. That program is in its second year.
And at the beginning of this year, Miller Royal said, teachers and students collaborated on defining respect and setting classroom rules.
"The students feel like the culture is changing a little," she said. "We've come some distance. We've still got a little distance to go, but we're moving in the right direction."
Redefining discipline is key to making interventions work across the board, from individual classrooms to the district as a whole, Everett said. That means conversations about when a student needs to go to the office versus when a teacher should just talk to them after class. It means establishing new standards for teachers and communicating more with families. But Everett doesn't suggest cutting discipline altogether.
"We don't want to just sugarcoat or cover up or brush under the rug this problem," she said.
Everett and Jackson cited fortuitous help from the teachers union, whose reps attended a 2017 equity workshop in Maryland and have spread what they learned throughout the district. Everett and Jackson (who played no role in the union's involvement in the workshop) said that groundwork will be key in fixing problems.
So far the results are promising, Everett said, with Hernando High closing its disciplinary gap almost entirely. She and her colleagues recently started the process at three more schools: Brooksville Elementary School, D.S. Parrot Middle School and Central High School. And because those schools are vertically aligned — one feeds into the next — students will get a consistent sense of discipline.
"That was the best way to do systemic change," Everett said, "because there's no beginning or end."
After 25 years in the district, Everett plans to retire in 2020. She hopes whoever takes over carries on the effort. In 10 years,she wants Hernando schools to have no disciplinary disparity at all.
She thinks of the 20 years she spent living down the street from Hernando High, and of how, on fall Fridays, the streets would fill with neighbors and families and parents of long-graduated students flooding toward the football games. She saw in them a community, something that made the place special, but wasn't without flaws. Now she's seen how statistics bear out its faults.
"If there's anything in that community that needs to go away," she said, "we want to be the catalyst for that."
Contact Jack Evans at [email protected] Follow @JackHEvans.