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Hillsborough proposal for student 'bill of rights' would slow school discipline process

Published Apr. 18, 2015

TAMPA — Slow down, Mr. Assistant Principal, before you suspend those unruly students.

They have rights.

Before you question them, they can call a parent or advocate. They can tell their side of the story. And you'll need reasonable suspicion to search their lockers.

These and other rights would be spelled out to students, parents and staff if the Hillsborough County School Board follows a recommendation to adopt a student bill of rights.

"All of this is supported from the standpoint of court decisions," said Michael Pheneger, a member of a task force that prepared the bill and a notice students will be asked to sign when they get in trouble.

The task force, which was formed after the School Board learned two years ago of stark disparities in discipline of different racial groups, is trying to narrow those gaps. While it's difficult to pinpoint why black students are suspended in such greater numbers, members contend that if students and parents understand and exercise their rights, those numbers will fall.

"What we hope to do is to set up a system in which people will have more incentive to take nonpunitive measures in these situations," said Pheneger, local chairman of the American Civil Liberties Union. "We want to slow down the process."

Task force members see a number of problems they can address through the bill of rights.

School resource and security officers, some hired by the district and others under contract with police agencies, are a growing presence on campuses nationwide. As a result, behavior that used to be handled administratively now leads to more arrests, which can be the first step in what critics call the "school-to-prison pipeline."

Equally troubling, Pheneger said, is the prospect of school administrators working in partnership with law enforcement.

"Students have a right to expect that school officials will monitor police actions and take steps to ensure that the student's rights are observed until a parent or guardian arrives," the proposed bill of rights says.

The bill, if adopted, would not be unique to Hillsborough. Task force members found similar bills in San Francisco and other communities.

What is unusual, they said, is the notice students would be asked to sign before they entered any meeting that might result in a suspension. The notice would inform the student of his or her rights under the bill.

"When a student is suspended from school even once, it increases his or her chance of dropping out of school," task force member Saba Baptiste wrote in a letter to acting superintendent Jeff Eakins.

As a result of the oversuspension of black students, "some of these students have missed an enormous amount of instructional hours."

Baptiste and Terrance Hyman are serving for now as co-chairs of an advisory council that is to replace the task force.

Members are prepared for some backlash from teachers and administrators who might feel their hands are tied by a bill of rights.

"It's not tying the teacher's hands," Hyman said. "It's about bringing awareness to the process. It's about creating other pathways that result in keeping children in school."

Leaders of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association did not comment.

Dallas Jackson, principal of Sligh Middle School, said he has mixed feelings about the move.

Courts have long upheld the principle of in loco parentis, a term that essentially means school administrators assume the role of parents during school hours because the law requires children to be in school.

By that logic, Jackson said, the student already has an advocate and needs no more protection than a child whose parent disciplines him in his own home.

"It might slow us down when we are trying to resolve a small problem or issue at school," he said. "At the same time, if it is something that is headed toward a suspension or an expulsion, I think it may be appropriate."

Hyman, Pheneger and others on the task force said they hope if the system slows down discipline, the district will respond with more counseling and intervention services, an approach commonly called "restorative justice."

Broward County educators have worked in recent years with court officials and civil rights groups to reduce school discipline actions, largely through interventions.

It was not hard to sell the concept to teachers, said Fort Lauderdale NAACP leader Marsha Ellison. But "we had teachers at the table, every step of the way."

The board will not vote Tuesday on the bill of rights. Instead, it will be considered as an information item, along with revisions to the code of conduct in the student handbook and authorization to form the advisory council.

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