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Pinellas School Board limits out-of-school suspensions, fires back at critics

Linda Lerner on stage during a F.A.S.T. (Faith & Action for Strength Together) meeting in 2015 at Tropicana Field, where organizers pushed district officials to reduce out-of-school suspensions. Lerner and the board took action on that front this week, but Lerner also criticized F.A.S.T. and other groups for statements they've made against the district. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Linda Lerner on stage during a F.A.S.T. (Faith & Action for Strength Together) meeting in 2015 at Tropicana Field, where organizers pushed district officials to reduce out-of-school suspensions. Lerner and the board took action on that front this week, but Lerner also criticized F.A.S.T. and other groups for statements they've made against the district. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Feb. 11, 2016

The Pinellas County School Board agreed Tuesday to ease the district's discipline policies by cutting the number of days a student can be suspended out of school and no longer deducting from their grades on make-up work.

At the same time, some on the board fired back at critics who said the district didn't go far enough in curbing punishments that disproportionately affect the county's black students.

Board member Linda Lerner said it was time for community groups to recognize the district is making progress. She chided the Southern Poverty Law Center and FAST, a coalition of churches and synagogues with the motto "Faith and Action for Strength Together," for holding recent public meetings about discipline and black student achievement without inviting the School Board or superintendent Mike Grego to speak at the event.

"It's time to really work together, not to have meetings where a viewpoint is expressed without giving the School Board a chance to give our data," Lerner said. "If you want to question the data we give you, go ahead. We'll bring it. It's accurate, and under Dr. Grego's leadership and some staff and this School Board we are making progress. And it's time for some groups in the community to recognize that and work with us," she said.

Representatives from the groups said Tuesday that they were confused by Lerner's comments.

Amir Whitaker, a staff lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said board members and Grego were invited to an event in December — and several attended. Grego promised publicly at the meeting to reduce the number of days a student could be suspended.

Johnny Watson, a member of FAST, said that their meeting Monday was scheduled on a date that Grego requested — and then Grego canceled. A district spokeswoman attended the FAST meeting, while Grego and a few board members went to an event at Gibbs High School.

Whitaker said board members also have been no-shows at other events. Last year, board members were invited to FAST's annual Nehemiah Action Assembly at Tropicana Field, but only Lerner attended. About 3,000 people turned out for the event, where FAST called for changes to discipline policies.

The back-biting threatened to overshadow the changes made Tuesday to the district's discipline policy. Speaking at the board meeting, Grego said it was the start of changing "the culture and some of these practices."

The policy reduces the number of days a student can be suspended out of school from a mandatory 10 days to no more than five days for "reassignable and expellable" offenses. It also prohibits students from being suspended out of school for more than five days for any offense. And students will be able to make up their school work without a grade penalty. The policy is expected to come back in March for final approval.

Board member Rene Flowers said the school district has been working on discipline issues "for some time."

"I think the changes are movement in the right direction," she said.

Lerner said after the meeting that she thinks the district is listening to concerns and acknowledged that further improvement is needed. "I want to decrease out-of-school suspensions as much as we can," she said.

But some black leaders are calling on the board to stop the practice altogether. They also said their concerns about black student achievement have been met for years with denial and blame.

On Monday night, FAST and the Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students, or COQEBS, joined together for a call to end out-of-school suspensions and arrests for disorderly conduct. The NAACP's St. Petersburg branch will discuss Saturday whether to join the effort.

"We're sick and tired of our kids not getting the education they deserve," said Robert Ward, pastor of Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, where the event was held. About 50 people attended, many of them parents and grandparents.

Ward cited a yearlong Tampa Bay Times investigation, "Failure Factories," which showed how the district abandoned integration efforts in 2007 and then failed to follow through with promised resources for five elementary schools that became predominantly poor and black.

The series found that black students in Pinellas County are suspended out of school at four times the rate of other children — one of the widest disparities in Florida. It noted that other large school districts stopped punishing students academically for missing school because it needlessly set them back.

In five years, black students in Pinellas lost a combined 45,942 school days to suspensions for minor offenses. White students, who outnumber black students 3 to 1 in Pinellas, lost 28,665 days by comparison.

With Tuesday's policy change, district officials took another step to address some of those issues. They already had been piloting some disciplinary changes in schools countywide. Those efforts are paying off, district leaders said.

They said that in the first three months of this school year there was an 18 percent reduction in referrals to all students, a 19 percent reduction of referrals issued to black students, and a 13 percent reduction in out-of-school suspensions for black students. They also said there has been a 45 percent reduction in arrests over the last three school years.

But black leaders said the district can do more. They pointed to the Miami-Dade school system, which stopped giving out-of-school suspensions last year, instead sending students to "Success Centers" staffed by teachers and counselors.

"This is a good step forward, but it is a baby step," Flo Young, of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, said of the reduction in suspension days. "If Miami-Dade can do it, why can't Pinellas County?"

Grego said after the board meeting Tuesday that he can't just stop giving out-of-school suspensions. An alternative setting has to be available for students who misbehave.

"We look forward to partners who would want to step forward and say, 'Let's have an alternative to school suspension perhaps at a church or other places. Those are some of the practices we're looking at,'" he said.

Pinellas had alternative behavior centers that drastically cut down on the number of black children suspended from middle schools in the mid 1980s, only to discontinue them within a few years.

The district also created on-campus suspension centers in the late 1990s that were praised as a national model for keeping order in schools while ensuring black children still got a good education. But the School Board would not fund one of them in full — they cost less than $100,000 apiece — and discontinued the program after outside money ran out in 2008.

Staff Writers Colleen Wright and Lisa Gartner contributed to this story. Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com. Follow @Fitz_ly.

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