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Excessive fighting prompts Pasco schools to get tough on student discipline

Superintendent Kurt Browning asks parents to help out.
Fivay High School added guards and got tougher on student discipline in 2020 after a spate of fights. The Pasco County school district is taking a page from the school's action plan as it confronts rising student violence across the county.
Fivay High School added guards and got tougher on student discipline in 2020 after a spate of fights. The Pasco County school district is taking a page from the school's action plan as it confronts rising student violence across the county. [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]
Published Mar. 23|Updated Mar. 23

LAND O’LAKES — The leniency that Pasco County schools have shown to misbehaving students as they’ve returned to classrooms after months away has come to an end.

Superintendent Kurt Browning has instructed principals to recommend expulsion of children involved in fights and other “serious misbehaviors” as detailed on the district discipline matrix in the student code of conduct.

“We have no wish to expel students. We want them in school and in class learning,” Browning said in a YouTube message that went to families on Tuesday.

But the message has come through clearly from teachers, school leaders, parents and students, he said, that the relaxed approach the district has been using hasn’t worked. Rather, it has “emboldened students to engage in unacceptable behavior because they have no fear of consequences.”

School districts across Florida and the nation have reported an increase in student misbehavior this year. Experts have said part of the problem is that children did not interact with others for lengthy periods of time during the pandemic, and did not return to classrooms with the same self-control they might have had in the past.

During the current school year prior to spring break, the Pasco County district had recorded 532 fights and related serious offenses, for which 252 students were expelled or reassigned. For the same time frame a year earlier, 83 students were expelled or reassigned.

Some of the incidents that prompted the action included an October fight at Gulf Middle School that resulted in 17 arrests and a February fight at River Ridge High School that required a student to be airlifted to the hospital.

District officials noted that Fivay High School found success when it got tougher on discipline after a spate of fights in 2020 and used that school’s response as a guide for the districtwide action.

Related: After fights, Fivay High increases campus security

Browning said he hoped that, with parents’ support, the district will put an end to the problem.

“Please discuss with your students the acceptable and appropriate behavior expectations in all school-related activities,” the superintendent said, asking parents to read an email that went home further outlining the situation.

District spokesperson Steve Hegarty noted that families will continue to have opportunities to appeal expulsion recommendations, acknowledging that in some instances extenuating circumstances might exist. At the same time, though, he said, the get-tough initiative will be followed, rather than continuing lighter actions such as suspensions and transfers.

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“It’s not our inclination to run them out of school,” Hegarty said. “But we’re having to take a different approach.”

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