ST. PETERSBURG — When Constance Ellis enrolled her son at Bay Point Middle School, she didn't know that administrators took a hard line on discipline or that punishment, when it is handed out, is skewed against black students.
She wishes she had.
London Hall had never gotten in trouble before he started at Bay Point.
But after Ellis complained about one of his teachers, he got his first-ever discipline referral. Then he got a second. And a third. And a fourth.
Ellis was determined to find out what was going on.
In response to a Tampa Bay Times investigation last year, the Pinellas County School District acknowledged that racial bias is fueling the jarring discipline disparity in the public schools. District officials eased some discipline policies, started implicit bias training for some administrators, and created alternative places for students to serve out-of-school suspensions. Despite those efforts, a new Times analysis shows that the disparity is as bad as ever and the gap in middle school, in particular, is the worst it's been in more than a decade.
London's story — the story of one black boy in one middle school last year — underscores the difficulty of the problem. It also shows the murkiness that district officials have to wade through when reviewing individual discipline cases for bias.
Was London retaliated against? Was it racial bias? Was it because of administrators' discipline style?
District officials declined to discuss London's case, citing student privacy. Bay Point's principal, Jason Shedrick, who is black, said in an email that his philosophy is to quickly head off minor discipline issues before they become serious problems. District officials say the school has improved under his leadership.
But Ellis believes that London's race might have something to do with how he was treated.
"They were treating him like just another African-American student," she said.
Despite pledges to do better, the Pinellas County school system still is suspending black students out of school at four times the rate of other children. White students, who outnumber black students 3 to 1, are kicked out of school fewer times, according to the district's discipline numbers.
Most other school districts in Florida hand out suspensions more evenly.
Another aspect of London's case: Three of four discipline referrals were for the kind of subjective offenses, such as "defiance" or "lack of cooperation," that the Times found last year were given to black students far more often than other students.
Friends and family told Ellis not to push her luck. They told her to find a new school. They warned her that fighting would make it worse, and not just for London. Ellis, a single mother of two boys, is a Pinellas County teacher.
She didn't back down.
• • •
The year had started well. Early on, London, a sixth-grader, brought a note home from a teacher that praised him for being respectful and holding the door for classmates. "He is a star student," the teacher wrote. At a parent meeting a few months into the school year, London again was praised for his "good behavior."
Diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder when he was 5, London can be talkative and restless. But he has always done well in school and excelled athletically. He made it through five years of elementary school without getting a discipline referral. And for the first six months, he got no referrals at Bay Point Middle, either.
But then London started having problems with his English teacher, Kelly Henry.
Henry, who started at Bay Point in 2012, is a veteran with more than 30 years of experience and a clean teaching record. But London said that sometimes she yelled so close to his face that he could smell the coffee on her breath. And then, in February, London said that Henry called him an idiot.
That wasn't the whole story, as Ellis learned. Frustrated one day, Henry, 54, told the class to "stop acting like idiots," district documents show. More than a month later, after Ellis complained, the principal gave Henry a "coaching memo" in which he wrote that the teacher's behavior was inappropriate. He instructed Henry to attend training in classroom management. She otherwise received no punishment.
Reached in Mississippi, where she now lives, Henry declined to comment.
School officials wouldn't move London to another class. Ellis scheduled a parent-teacher conference to discuss her concerns. At the March 8 meeting, some teachers said they had problems with London's behavior, things that hadn't come up in previous meetings. Documents show that Henry wrote on a conference form that London "disrupts the learning environment."
A new assistant principal, Jason Helbling, ended the meeting after Ellis brought up what Henry said in class. Ellis said she left the school with the feeling that he was siding with the teacher over her son.
Helbling declined to comment for this story.
Three days after the conference, London received his first discipline referral, for teasing a girl about the shape of her head. Helbling wrote him up for "harassment." London received his second referral on March 15, for not sitting down in his seat and walking around the classroom. His history teacher wrote him up for "lack of cooperation," "defiance," and "campus disruption."
London missed a day of class serving an in-school suspension.
A question ran through Ellis' mind: Had she made her son a target by speaking out?
• • •
In a school district where discipline is uneven, Bay Point Middle stands out.
It ranked fourth out of 18 middle schools this year in discipline disparity, and black students were suspended out of school at four times the rate of other children. Clearwater Fundamental Middle was the most unbalanced; black students at the school were six times as likely as other children to be suspended at least once.
Despite recent policy changes in the district, the disparity didn't improve at Bay Point. Nearly two-thirds of students at the C-rated school are black. This year, as out-of-school suspensions dropped countywide, Bay Point suspended more children.
Other school districts use a tool called a matrix to make discipline more fair, by clearly defining punishable behavior and consequences. The Pinellas County school system prefers to give administrators and teachers wide latitude when it comes to discipline. That means Pinellas students are largely at the mercy of the person holding the referral slip.
What happened at Bay Point this year shows how much discipline can vary from one administrator to another, even within the same school.
Due to a retirement, sixth-graders like London had two different assistant principals, one for the first half of the school year and one for the second half. In the first semester, Patricia Jones, who is black, wrote 26 discipline referrals, or about seven per month. Helbling, who replaced Jones in January and is white, wrote about 28 referrals per month, according to the school district.
Two other assistant principals at the school, Dennard Bennett and Samantha Peifley, wrote about 16 per month and about 13 per month, respectively. Bennett is black, while Peifley is white.
A district spokeswoman said some of the referrals counted for the assistant principals could have been written by teachers and later coded into the system by an administrator. District officials declined to provide the information.
There was one constant in the discipline referrals, regardless of who wrote it, and that was race: Black students received 89 percent of the 406 referrals, or 361 of those written last year.
• • •
Ellis' concerns about fairness weren't helped when she learned that a mistake almost became part of London's discipline record.
For the third referral, Helbling wrote on May 10 that London had pushed a girl and she hit her head on a locker. It was recorded in the district's system as a "strike." London missed two days of class to an in-school suspension.
But a security video of the incident showed that no pushing took place. London startled the girl, she bumped her head, and then the two hugged, according to district documents.
The only reason the mistake came to light was that Ellis, a teacher, knew she could appeal London's discipline referrals as part of a district process that not all parents are aware of. She also asked Maria Scruggs, president of the NAACP's St. Petersburg branch, to advocate for her, a step Ellis felt was necessary to get school officials to respond. Scruggs has previously called on the school superintendent to step down because of concerns about the school district's treatment of black students.
Scruggs said that she worked as an advocate on two other cases at Bay Point this year.
Ellis told the principal in May that she wanted to review all three of her son's discipline referrals. A district advocate watched the video. Shedrick, the principal, said that he would "execute a one-time decision" to clear London's referrals from his record. He told Ellis his decision in an email on the second-to-last day of school.
A district spokeswoman, Lisa Wolf, said the action doesn't mean the discipline referrals weren't called for in the first place. It can be done to "work with parents."
Ellis feared the consequences of her son being labeled a behavior problem. London had been accepted into Bay Point's science and technology magnet program for seventh grade, and a string of referrals could cost him his seat. Worse, her son no longer wanted to go to school.
"I had some nights where I couldn't sleep. I was getting up at 2 a.m.," Ellis said.
After she received Shedrick's email, Ellis said she still was scared to send London to Bay Point for his last day of school. She thought about keeping him home. Instead, she sent him to school with this advice: "Just don't say anything to anybody."
• • •
Vetting discipline cases for bias is tricky.
A district investigator concluded last month that Helbling didn't intentionally target London for discipline. District employees told the investigator that Helbling, a new assistant principal, was "overeager" and still learning his job. London could be disrespectful, employees said.
But Ellis doesn't think "overeager" explains her son's last day at Bay Point Middle.
London spent his last day of school serving an in-school suspension after getting his fourth and final referral for "defiance" and "lack of cooperation."
Administrators said that London was handing out candy and threw it when confronted by Helbling and another staff member, according to district documents. London tore up the discipline referral in frustration, but it's still readable. It didn't say anything about candy, and London denied passing it out.
Again, London's story didn't match the discipline referral. Again, Ellis didn't know whom to believe. What would the video footage show this time?
Ellis may never know.
A district investigator didn't watch it before closing the case. School officials said it wasn't available.
But the principal did one thing she asked: Sixteen minutes after Ellis sent an email requesting an appeal of London's final discipline referral, he sent her a response. London's last referral, too, was erased from his discipline record.
Times data reporter Nathaniel Lash and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Fitz_ly.