In his back-to-school video message last week, Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego urged teachers to take pride in the district’s four-year effort to improve student behavior.
It’s been “nationally recognized,” he said.
One result: Pinellas has seen a dramatic drop in disciplinary referrals, a decades-old tool that allows teachers to get backup from the principal’s office when students misbehave.
But many front-line educators say the program, though well-intended, has tilted the classroom dynamic toward leniency, making it harder for teachers to keep order.
Referrals are down, they said, because principals have stopped accepting them. The slips disappear or are ignored, they said, sometimes even ripped up in front of students.
The school system processed 48 percent fewer referrals last year compared to five years earlier, according to data reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times. A total of about 66,000 referrals were recorded, compared to more than 127,000 in 2013-14. The drop doesn’t correlate with student enrollment, which dipped only slightly over those years.
The decline has been the subject of debate as the behavior initiative, known as “restorative practices,” begins its fifth year in Pinellas with the start of classes this week.
The program came amid promises by district leaders to address climbing discipline rates. They enlisted the help of a company that works with schools across the country to curb discipline problems using restorative practices, an emerging social science focused on relationship-building.
The partnership is one of the district’s biggest priorities.
Falling referral numbers show the program’s success in creating a new culture in schools, said area superintendent Robert Poth. Students are more engaged and therefore have fewer behavior issues, he added.
At the same time, there's a "heightened sense of awareness about writing referrals," acknowledged deputy superintendent William Corbett. "We've been trying to be much more cognizant about the manner we deal with disciplining students."
However, some teachers say they have received minimal training on restorative practices and are left with little recourse when students act out.
Pinellas is under “huge pressure” to decrease discipline, said LaSonya Moore, a former teacher and school administrator in the district who is now an assistant professor of education at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg.
As that pressure filters down into schools, she suspects it has gone too far. Moore said many educators she mentors have told her the drop in referrals doesn’t mean that students are suddenly behaving better.
“They say data doesn’t lie, but data does lie,” Moore added. “It can be manipulated to look great at times when it isn’t.”
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The biggest drop in referrals happened in Pinellas elementary schools, which saw 53 percent fewer last year than five years prior. Middle and high schools saw drops of 34 percent and 50 percent respectively.
At 11 schools, referrals fell by 90 percent or more over the five years, the district’s data shows. The numbers were cut in half on 51 campuses stretching from St. Petersburg to Tarpon Springs.
“There is no question that this is a districtwide problem in terms of administrators not processing referrals,” said Brandt Robinson, a teacher at Dunedin High. He’s a member of the teachers union who works on a committee focused on restorative practices and discipline, and he says complaints about both are growing all the time.
Restorative practices came into play in 2015, after a Times investigation found black students were being disproportionately disciplined in the district’s schools. The idea behind the program is for teachers to foster a sense of openness and community on campus that not only makes kids less likely to misbehave but helps teachers understand how to better respond when they do, so the behavior can be corrected.
If a kid picks a fight with another student, for example, a teacher following restorative practices could set up a meeting with a school counselor, or set aside time to talk out the issue privately. Simply writing a referral instead could cause undue "damage to the relationship between the student and the teacher," Corbett said.
"There always need to be consequences," he added. "But for a lot of surface behaviors and minor behaviors, you've got to handle it in the classroom."
The effort, which has been gradually implemented, is supposed to be used together with discipline, but educators say that’s not happening.
The Times interviewed 16 teachers from eight schools who say their campuses felt pressure in recent years to stop writing referrals. Others confirmed it happened at their schools, too, but declined to speak publicly for fear of retribution.
Teachers union president Mike Gandolfo said members across the district have shared stories of referrals disappearing, disruptive kids returning to class minutes after being sent to the office and teachers forced to complete tedious tasks before a referral is considered.
Some educators have been denied referral forms, he said. Eventually, they learned the slips had little chance of being processed by administrators, so they stopped writing them.
“It just shows you the pressure principals are under to make their numbers better,” Gandolfo said. “This whole system is based on fear. It starts at the top and it rolls downhill.”
Significantly, the biggest drop in referrals happened in the 2015-16 school year when restorative practices were first being rolled out, and well before all teachers were trained in the program.
Few of the teachers interviewed recalled being explicitly told not to write referrals. Most refrained because they felt intimidated, said Polly Toddle, a teacher who retired in 2015 from Clearwater Intermediate, an alternative school for students in grades 5 through 8 who have not been successful elsewhere.
Toddle remembers feeling she would get in trouble for submitting referrals, and sitting in meetings where teachers were sometimes shamed for having too many.
“It was just understood that you would have consequences” for writing referrals, Toddle recalled. “You were considered a troublemaker.”
Sometimes, she wrote a referral anyway. But then the principal would edit the summary of the student’s offense and waive the consequences she recommended. Over time, the front office became a “revolving door” for misbehaving students, she said, and they ended up back in the classroom.
Teachers elsewhere in Florida have had similar frustrations. News reports from Polk and Broward counties recount teachers complaining about administrators who refuse to process referrals.
In Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County public schools have cut out-of-school suspensions using restorative practices but have seen spikes in violent behavior and drug use on campus. Teachers have reported feeling helpless when students act out in their classrooms, and the teachers union president says schools are “spiraling out of control.”
Hillsborough School Board members have struggled in recent months to find a middle ground between a “no-tolerance” discipline policy and restorative practices, which some worry is too lax. One teacher told officials in June that students “have not been held accountable for their actions.”
Districts are striving to make their data look good, said Ann Preus, who retired as a teacher from Blanton Elementary in July after 37 years in Pinellas schools.
“They will fudge … because they can’t find another way to get the numbers down,” she said. “They want it to look better.”
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A teacher can remove a student from class anytime his or her behavior becomes too much for them to handle on their own, according to the Code of Conduct for Pinellas schools.
The only requirement is that the teacher document — usually by filling out a referral — how a student’s behavior has “seriously disrupted the teaching or learning in the classroom.”
According to former Clearwater Intermediate teacher Brian Coleman, a referral sends a clear message to the principal’s office: “This kid is doing something inappropriate in my classroom and I can’t stop right now because I’m in the middle of a lesson, and it’s so flagrant that I need you to step in.”
District policy states referrals can be written for a variety of reasons, from dress code violations and tardiness, to dangerous acts like fighting and drug use. How that policy is applied, though, is left to principals, Poth said.
The district has not directed principals to stop processing referrals, he said.
Poth said he and three other area superintendents review referral data to help evaluate administrators’ performance because it “speaks to the overall stability of a school.” Principals are refraining from processing referrals for infractions that are “not necessarily really egregious acts,” he said.
Data and interviews with teachers, however, tell a different story.
In elementary schools, for example, referrals for not cooperating, stealing, disruption, defiance, vandalism and repeated misconduct have decreased by 50 percent or more since 2013-14.
Write-ups for hitting other children fell by 44 percent, and those for hitting adults dropped 35 percent.
Middle schools saw at least 60 percent fewer referrals for stealing and not cooperating. Referrals for defiance dropped by 44 percent.
Write-ups for repeated misconduct, defiance and profanity were cut by at least half in high schools. About 35 percent fewer students on those campuses got a referral for disrupting class and cheating.
Some teachers say their classrooms have grown unmanageable.
“The kids are no different,” said former Clearwater Intermediate teacher Jennifer Harding. “But the way that kids are handled in the district is night and day.”
Teacher Gerri Lee Degennaro saw the change firsthand at East Lake High, before retiring in July after 35 years in the district. She said she once wrote a referral and the student wasn’t called to the office for three months.
Similar practices were used at Blanton Elementary, said Preus, the teacher who retired this summer. Administrators told teachers at the start of the year to come up with a behavior plan to reduce their referrals. If that didn’t happen, “you would be called in and told you need better classroom management,” she said.
She witnessed students throw things, like chairs and scissors, push other children and destroy classrooms without being formally reprimanded by administrators, she said.
Teaching assistant Alex Roleo quickly learned referrals weren’t a popular option at Clearwater Intermediate either.
Discipline came up at a meeting, where the principal told teachers she wasn’t a “believer of referrals,” and the message was reinforced by the front office, Roleo said. Of the three referrals she wrote last school year, none were processed by administrators, she said.
Students eventually caught on, many teachers said. At East Lake High, kids who acted out would tell Degennaro: “Nothing is going to happen to me.” Some, she said, returned to class bragging about how a principal ripped up a disciplinary slip in front of them.
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Though Pinellas teachers have been told to handle behavior on their own, they’ve received little training on how to do it, some educators say.
In the four years since the district adopted restorative practices, most teachers have had only a few days of introductory instruction. And it’s come from a colleague rather than someone from the International Institute of Restorative Practices, which developed the program.
That’s because Pinellas adopted a “train the trainer” model rather than hiring trainers directly from the institute, according to Brandt Robinson, the union member on the discipline committee who is one of the district’s licensed trainers.
The strategy, he said, "compromised the quality and integrity" of the sessions. So far, records show, Pinellas has spent about $1 million on training licenses, stipends and materials.
Robinson recently visited Jefferson County schools in Kentucky and said he found its approach to restorative practices to be more intensive. Those who undergo training there receive follow-up coaching and are taught to hold conferences with troubled students.
That’s not happening in Pinellas, he said.
Area superintendent Patricia Wright said there is “ongoing professional development” on restorative practices available for Pinellas teachers. But in an interview, she was unable to describe when that training happens or what it entails. The district is “in the process of developing modules,” she said, adding that school leaders are responsible for creating a training calendar.
According to a recent survey of 1,600 Pinellas teachers, about 70 percent said they feel adequately trained in restorative practices. Half said the practice has been embraced by teachers at their school, and fewer than 40 percent said the program is monitored for quality and effectiveness.
Moore, the former Pinellas administrator now working at USF, said teachers she mentors from around the county are feeling a “disconnect” between what is expected and what they are prepared to do. The district needs to invest more time and money if leaders want schools to see real change, she said.
“I don’t think it’s a fly in, fly out type of thing,” Moore added. “We’re really missing the boat.”
To get more support from the institute, including ongoing coaching and monitoring, district leaders would need to approve a “bigger agreement,” said Keith Hickman, the company’s director of continuing education.
Hickman confirmed restorative practices should never be used in place of referrals but to support the discipline process by helping children understand their behavior and move forward in a positive way. A decrease in discipline should come with a more positive school climate and vice versa.
One without the other is “not healthy,” he said, adding that it takes about three years to see results from the program.
Ric Davis, president of the Concerned Organization for the Quality Education of Black Students, worries about the drop in referrals, too.
Though they have decreased, he said, the district still disciplines a disproportionate number of black students. They remain about twice as likely to receive a referral than non-black kids, according to the district’s “bridging the gap” plan.
Davis said he worries the continuing gap is a result of the demands his group has put on district leaders — and the way they've responded to it.
“There are no silver bullets for this,” he said. “Some progress is not necessarily a straight line. To ascribe the results to any one thing in particular, I think, fails to recognize the complicated nature of what we’re trying to do here.”
Neither he nor teachers see evidence yet that restorative practices have resulted in significant change.
“We believe in restorative practices,” said Gandolfo, the union president. “My fear is that when they don’t process referrals ... they’re sending the wrong message, and it’s going to turn teachers off to it, and it’s going to destroy the movement in Pinellas.”