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Hillsborough officials vow to cut suspensions to keep kids in school and out of jail

Published Jul. 16, 2015

TAMPA — From the list of zero-tolerance offenses to the length of time kids are kept out of school, Hillsborough County students can expect dramatic changes in discipline this fall.

Chief Diversity Officer Lewis Brinson made it clear Wednesday that many of a task force's proposed reforms will be forwarded to the School Board for approval July 28.

Officials are still fine-tuning some features, based in part on Wednesday's meetings with staffers. For example: Three-day limits on suspensions for some offenses might be increased to five, so a child caught fighting on Monday cannot return to school for Friday night's football game.

But the essence of the new policy — a districtwide effort to address students' problems instead of booting them off campus — will remain.

"We're not going to take away teachers' rights to teach and we're not going to take away students' rights to learn," said Brinson, who was an assistant superintendent when he was put in charge of the project in 2013.

"But we have to be fair in how we apply consequences and exclude kids from school. Most of the students you are suspending are at-risk already."

Give students 10-day suspensions, Brinson said, and "you're just burying them."

Some changes were easy to sell to the principals, assistant principals and counselors who met Wednesday.

Brinson got some pushback when he said schools will no longer be allowed to use the vague term "inappropriate behavior," which is now one of the top offenses.

Heath Beauregard, principal of Adams Middle School, said he sometimes uses the term as a compromise when teachers push for a stronger offense that would carry a more severe punishment.

Be precise, Brinson insisted: "Don't call it something else to appease people."

The proposed changes are designed to slow the discipline process and push schools to help kids instead of suspending them. Studies show students given out-of-school suspensions often wind up in jail. In Hillsborough, as elsewhere, black students are by far affected the most often.

To interrupt that cycle, the task force suggested schools stop suspending for tardiness, another frequent offense.

Instead, schools will be asked to work with families to get at the cause of a student's problems and find a solution.

Under the proposed plan, when students are suspended, the term would typically be limited to three to five days. Schools now suspend students for up to 10 days. For that to happen, according to the new plan, schools would have to consult with an area superintendent.

In both of Wednesday's sessions, staffers said schools do not have enough counselors, psychologists and social workers to address children's problems. Superintendent Jeff Eakins is looking into that issue, and the use of guidance counselors for tasks such as testing, before he decides if he'll push to hire more.

A sticking point came when staffers considered a disclosure form students would sign when they get in trouble, attesting that they know their rights. These include the right to call a parent in before they are questioned.

Administrators said that step could cripple the process. Brinson said he will run it by attorneys before deciding if it should be included.

Either way, school leaders hope they can cut down on the criminalization of common teen behavior.

"We want to arrest kids as little as possible," said task force member Jennifer Morley. "Once they have that first arrest, there's no coming back."

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

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