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Pinellas eases school discipline policies as advocates call for even more action

A Melrose Elementary School student’s chart shows that he missed a lot of school days because he was suspended.
A Melrose Elementary School student’s chart shows that he missed a lot of school days because he was suspended.
Published Mar. 16, 2016

LARGO — The Pinellas County School Board has agreed 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 makeup work.

Board members first voted for the changes last month, but they became official with a unanimous vote Tuesday.

Still, advocates called on the board to do more to curb punishments that disproportionately affect black students. Representatives from a coalition of churches and synagogues called FAST, or Faith and Action for Strength Together, and the Southern Poverty Law Center urged school leaders to keep students in the classroom as much as possible.

Amir Whitaker, a staff lawyer with the law center, said he's still hearing about students getting suspended out of school for minor infractions. One child was suspended out of school after humming in class, he said.

Johnny Watson, a member of FAST, said that students should be sent to supervised programs instead of getting out-of-school suspensions. He called the changes made Tuesday "baby steps."

Two representatives from another group, the Dream Defenders, told the board they were grateful to attend Pinellas County's public schools at a time when misbehavior didn't so easily result in an arrest. Ashley Green, a coordinator with the Miami-based organization, urged school officials to do more to keep students out of jail.

"These are childish mistakes that all of us have made," she said.

Jayson James of Dream Defenders said that he was a problem child, even throwing a chair that hit a teacher. But he told the board that out-of-school suspensions shouldn't be used at all. And he asked them to consider the role that racism plays in discipline.

Black students receive more out-of-classroom discipline than other students though they make up about 19 percent of the school district. District officials have acknowledged that implicit bias is part of the reason for the disparity.

"We can't gloss over the fact," James said.

Other school districts in Florida have done more to change discipline policies. The Miami-Dade school system stopped giving out-of-school suspensions last year, instead sending students to "Success Centers" staffed by teachers and counselors.

With the changes approved Tuesday, Pinellas reduced 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.

Some board members said they agree more work needs to be done, but they praised the district's efforts so far. They also thanked community members for having a less-heated exchange about the issues than in recent months.

Board member Rene Flowers said she believes the district is taking time to understand the effects of possible changes. "I think we're making some good moves," she said.

Board member Ken Peluso asked for feedback about the changes from teachers and principals.

Board member Linda Lerner, who chided community members last month for not recognizing the progress that has been made, said she felt Tuesday that the communication had taken a turn for the better.

"Do we need to improve? Absolutely," she said, adding that working together was the way to do it.

A yearlong Tampa Bay Times investigation, "Failure Factories," focused in part on school discipline, finding 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.

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 just 28,665 days.

The series also 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.

District officials say they already have seen some improvements in arrests and out-of-school suspensions.

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

They also cited a 45 percent drop in arrests over the past three school years.

Times staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report. Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com. Follow @Fitz_ly.

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