LAND O’LAKES — The Pasco County School Board expelled two Zephyrhills High School students on Tuesday, in keeping with Superintendent Kurt Browning’s pledge to crack down on fighting.
“Just so everybody is fully aware, there is a zero-tolerance policy,” school board member Al Hernandez said after the vote. “And whether it’s these expulsions we just had or the other things that are taking place behind the scenes, just know ... we are extremely attuned to this situation and will support the superintendent and the district with the decisions.”
Browning first announced his plan to get tough on student discipline in March 2022, instructing principals to recommend expulsion for fights and other “serious misbehavior.” He reiterated his stance in late September, joining Sheriff Chris Nocco in a YouTube video reminding families that students could face serious consequences including criminal charges for violent actions.
Speaking to the board Tuesday, parent activist Rebecca Yuengling questioned the district’s commitment to this approach.
“Last school year, a year after the superintendent make this public PSA, 382 students were recommended for expulsion,” Yuengling said. “Nine were expelled. This was after last year’s zero tolerance.”
She questioned whether Tuesday’s action against two of 14 students identified for fighting at Zephyrhills was just gaslighting the public so the district could say it did something.
Browning took issue with that characterization. He noted that when students are faced with expulsion, their parents are offered the choice of placing them in virtual school instead. Seven students have been granted online school placement in lieu of being expelled this academic year, according to district records, with 157 taking that route last year.
Others were reassigned to alternative schools after hearings and appeals.
“It’s not my intent to keep them from learning,” Browning said after the meeting. “My intent is to get these disruptive kids off our school campuses.”
If families are willing to take the steps needed to ensure their children are attending online courses, he said he fully supports that option.
District student services director Melissa Musselwhite noted that expulsion comes after investigations into the circumstances leading to the fights. Students found to be caught up in the melee or defending themselves or others do not face penalties, especially with new laws in place controlling disciplinary action against students who intervene to stop fights.
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Students with special needs also have added protections about where they are placed.
It has become easier to review the activities, Musselwhite said, as students with phones routinely record fights and post them on social media.
Browning said that one such video showed cameras were turned on before the Zephyrhills High fight began, and appeared to know exactly where to pan for action. He raised concerns that some students might be starting fights to post outrageous videos online for social media popularity.
“They’re not going to be doing it in our schools,” Browning said, suggesting that he might propose additional cellphone-use restrictions as a partial solution.
In June, the school board approved a cellphone policy for middle and high schools that allows limited use during breaks and before and after classes.
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