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  1. The Education Gradebook

Hillsborough black students still expelled at higher rates, despite efforts to fix racial disparities

TAMPA — In a year when the Hillsborough County school district tried to ease racial disparities in student discipline, black students continued to be removed from their schools in larger numbers.

Fifty-eight percent of students referred for expulsion or "change of placement" in 2014-15 were black, according to a report shared with the School Board last week. District-wide student enrollment is 21 percent black.

"I'm not surprised," said Marilyn Williams, a retired educator who filed a discrimination complaint against the district that led to an ongoing investigation. "They haven't dealt with the problem, which is deep-seated beliefs people have about black children."

While the number of cases has decreased steadily over the years, the over-representation of black students has not. The 58 percent last school year compares to 53 percent in the previous school year.

Most cases counted in the report do not result in expulsion from the school system, but transfers to alternative schools — what the district calls change of placement. Sixteen of the 458 students who entered the process this year were returned to their home schools because a committee did not think there was enough evidence to move them.

Some were expelled temporarily because they missed their hearings. And many who are sent to alternative schools eventually return to their home schools.

The school with the largest number of cases this year was Hillsborough High School in the Seminole Heights neighborhood, which has both traditional courses and an International Baccalaureate program. A separate teacher survey showed only 14 percent of teachers there said students follow rules of conduct. Hillsborough High is getting a new principal this year.

Assault and battery were the most common offenses in the district's 181 high school expulsion cases, followed by drugs and threats.

Among the 235 middle school cases, black students accounted for 54 percent. McLane and Greco middle schools had the most, both with 19. "Continuous disruptive behavior" was by far the most common offense, followed by assault and battery and threats. Twenty-two of the cases involved students who had knives.

Six elementary students were referred for expulsion, and all six were black. The offenses included threats, arson and major disruptions. One offense was listed as sexual.

Task force committees have met for more than two years to find ways to reduce the racial disparity in not just expulsion cases, but suspensions as well.

One response last year by former Superintendent MaryEllen Elia was to create school-based "success teams" to focus on students who were most at risk of having problems at school. Elia renamed dropout prevention specialists "success coaches" to give the effort a more positive feel.

District leaders said they would report to the board mid-year with preliminary results of the success plan. But so far there has been no update. When last asked about the issue, superintendent Jeff Eakins said he was waiting to see a full year of data before taking action.

Eakins has pushed in recent months for changes in the student handbook that will make it harder for principals to suspend students for long periods of time, or for vague reasons. Those changes take effect when students return to school Aug. 25.

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

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