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Public defender Holt will help Hillsborough schools cut down on student suspensions and arrests

Defender Julianne Holt said perhaps her office could help advocate for students.
Defender Julianne Holt said perhaps her office could help advocate for students.
Published Jul. 22, 2015

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Public Defender Julianne Holt has joined the movement to keep children in school and out of jail.

Appearing Tuesday at the School Board workshop on student discipline, Holt volunteered her attorneys to meet with students, train educators and arrange for advocates when a child is questioned in a case that could turn criminal.

"The principal or the assistant principal is clearly conflicted," said Holt, who has been the county's elected public defender for 23 years and sent her own two children through public schools.

"The long-term ramification, if you are involved in the questioning or arrest of this child, you're affecting the bond of the relationship between the school system and the child for the future."

Holt's appearance capped more than two years of meetings leading up to a vote Tuesday on districtwide changes in school discipline.

Suspensions will be shorter if the plan is approved. Offenses will be reclassified and there will be an overall effort to help students resolve their problems instead of turning them out of school.

Holt was invited to speak by board member April Griffin, who has long complained that kids have more rights when they are arrested than when they get in trouble at school — especially if their parents are not available.

Holt agreed that, ideally, a child should have a parent or guardian during questioning. In the court system, a juvenile defendant is assigned a guardian ad litem — a legal advocate — when there is no parent available.

The public defender said her office might be able to arrange for similar legal representation for children at school.

Holt said she'd like to send members of her staff into schools at the beginning of the year and perhaps midyear as well to educate children about the criminal justice system — and how to avoid it.

"We find that children just don't know how to deal with conflict," she said, and as a result, a large percentage of juvenile cases concern simple battery. "They don't know how to deal with their emotions, they don't know how to deal with anger."

Holt would also like to train school staff in how best to interview children who, in many cases, have learning disabilities or low literacy levels.

"We're talking about being available, really, on a 24-hour basis if that's what the school system desires," she said.

The circumstances that Holt described mostly concerned cases that cross over into the legal system, not those that are handled with just a school suspension.

Superintendent Jeff Eakins said he was encouraged by Holt's appearance, part of what he views as a communitywide effort to help kids instead of marginalizing them.

"In creating clarity around this issue of building the right culture, it does help inform our partners how they now can come to the table and help," Eakins said.

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"That's what I'm seeing more and more. I'm the glass half full kind of guy."

Holt and district officials planned to spend the rest today in conversations to work out the details of their relationship.

District leaders are under a tight deadline to craft changes to the student handbook by Thursday. That's when they will post the agenda for a board meeting July 28, during which the changes will come up for a vote.

If approved, they will take effect in August.

Some board members wondered how the changes will be communicated to school employees, whether teachers will be asked to change the terms of their union contract, and whether assistant superintendents will be overwhelmed once they are asked to sign off on any suspension of more than five days.

"This is a heavy lift," Eakins acknowledged. "It really is a heavy lift."

He added that sometimes "fear grips us. We've got to let go of that fear."

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