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  1. The Education Gradebook

School discipline changes could come soon in Hillsborough

Published Jul. 26, 2015

By Marlene Sokol

TAMPA — The numbers showed black students in Hills-borough County were getting suspended at roughly twice the rate of white students.

The federal government launched an investigation. A task force was assembled with members from the teachers union, nonprofit organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Now, more than two years after the School Board held its first workshop on student discipline, the board is poised to sign off on sweeping reforms Tuesday.

Assuming the plan passes, kids will no longer be suspended under the vague category of "inappropriate behavior." Suspensions of more than five days will need district approval. And principals will have to answer if there are too many of them.

"We're going through a transformation in this district," board chairwoman Susan Valdes said at a Tuesday workshop. "And I pray every day for patience."

The plan is consistent with superintendent Jeff Eakins' pledge to increase graduations by doing a better job of meeting individual students' needs. To that end, he is asking school leaders to go further than they have to help students solve their problems within school walls.

He's met skepticism along the way. Principals questioned if it was realistic to have their bosses sign off on long suspensions.

Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, director of the teachers union and a member of the task force that worked on the reforms, said schools do not have enough social workers and psychologists to do what Eakins is asking.

Schools and teachers need resources to help children's issues, whether they are in school or outside of school, she said. Without that, "I don't think you will get the impact you want."

And the administration might have to sell parts of the plan to union members.

For example: Reformers want students to make up their work when they return from suspension. District policy now gives them the right to make up work after an excused absence, but not a suspension.

The long-term effects of keeping unruly kids at school are impossible to predict, and some parents fear the worst.

Lawyer Ted Hamilton, who spoke against the plan at a recent board meeting, said he moved his daughter, a musical theater student, from Blake High School in central Tampa to Freedom High in New Tampa because of disorder at Blake.

Her phone was stolen, teachers appeared to be discouraged from writing behavior referrals to keep their discipline statistics low, and some students did not even wear shirts, Hamilton wrote in a follow-up letter to the newspaper and board member Cindy Stuart.

"It is interesting to me how a panel of, in my opinion, biased individuals who are attempting to keep disruptive children in school, can affect the entire school system," he wrote.

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Eakins has a good relationship with the School Board, which hired him unanimously this year after firing his predecessor, MaryEllen Elia.

But some members have voiced concerns about the plan.

Melissa Snively, who represents a conservative community in East Hillsborough, said she's troubled by a lack of trust between teachers and parents, which can give students a sense of entitlement. "I like the direction we're going in, but I don't know if I'm ready to finalize anything right now," she said.

Stuart said implementing the changes will be a challenge, and "myth busters" will be needed to spread the word that schools have not ceded control to kids.

"We need to execute and implement and that's going to be crucial for our teachers to feel good about this and for our administrators to feel good about this," she said.

• • •

The conversation in Hillsborough is the kind taking place in many communities as they seek to interrupt what has been dubbed the "school to prison pipeline."

Changes were implemented in Broward County schools after meetings between school officials, law enforcement and the NAACP.

In Pinellas, the public defender's office took part in reform efforts inspired by Broward. As a result, officials say school-based arrests fell by 30 percent in the year that just ended.

In both places, a key focus is on linking kids with agencies and counselors who can help them with their underlying problems.

"The idea is to keep kids in school," said Rick Stelljes, chief of the Pinellas district's police department. He insisted the schools are every bit as safe as they were last year, although firm leadership had to come from superintendent Michael Grego.

"You can always get law enforcement on board," he said. "But the key thing is getting the schools on board."

The proposed changes in Hillsborough are not as radical as some wanted. Missing from the student handbook on Tuesday's agenda is a student bill of rights and disclosure form that was crafted by the ACLU members.

Anticipating the loss of those elements last week, task force member Michael Pheneger, who is also an officer in the ACLU, wrote to board members asking them to reconsider.

"Since a student arrest can have lifelong consequences, it is critical that students know their rights," he wrote.

But a survey by district officials showed students found the disclosure document confusing, or described the process as "overkill." And the rights are already contained in various sections of the student handbook, said Lewis Brinson, Eakins' chief diversity officer and point person on the discipline plan.

Pheneger was encouraged by an offer from Public Defender Julianne Holt to train students and staff, as well as arranging advocates for students whose parents cannot accompany them when they are questioned.

And he supports the overall mindset under Eakins.

"I think it's safe to say that you could not have had this discussion seven months ago," he said.

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

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