Changing tardiness policies could reduce racial disparities in school discipline, panel says

Published Dec. 6, 2014

TAMPA — Tardiness is the second most common cause for discipline in the Hillsborough County Public Schools. Black and Hispanic students are disciplined more often than white students.

So it stands to reason, community leaders say, that rethinking tardiness policies could reduce the discipline statistics and the disparity.

More relaxed policies also could help students spend more time in class instead of in the school's front office. "Your punishment for not being there is to not be there even more," said Michael Pheneger of the American Civil Liberties Union, who is also a member of a school district task force on race and discipline.

The task force, which has struggled since the district formed it more than a year ago, is trying to get on track and deliver concrete recommendations to the administration by March.

Meeting Friday, members took a look at both the district's tardiness policy and the code of conduct, which spells out zero-tolerance offenses in the schools.

They questioned whether disrupting a school function should be in the same level-one category as arson and homicide.

And there was considerable discussion about why some students are late and whether tardiness policies are enforced evenly. Task force member Henry Ballard, a business owner who used to work for the district, said he suspects black students are punished disproportionately for arriving late.

Melissa Erickson, founder of the Alliance for Public Schools, said it makes little sense to punish a 6-year-old whose parents cannot get him to school on time. "That's not willful disobedience," she said.

At its next meeting on Jan. 9, the group will work on revisions to both policies, said Glen Gilzean, a school voucher advocate the district brought in to moderate the sessions.

The meeting, while open to the public, attracted only a handful of observers including the media. The Rev. Russell Meyer, head of the Florida Council of Churches, said he wishes there would be more outreach to get more people involved who are directly affected by school discipline.

"The affected people are not being heard from," Meyer said. "As long as it is a controlled, constrained process, we will still have the status quo."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol.