1. Opinion

Who’s getting punished in Pinellas schools? It’s not just misbehaving students. | Editorial

Pinellas County Schools have used restorative practices for four years. Are they working?
Dunedin High School teacher Carole Robinson provided this copy of a disciplinary referral that administrators on her campus did not process in 2017. The words "Do not enter" are highlighted. [Image courtesy of Carole Robinson]
Published Aug. 25
Updated Aug. 26

It’s been four years since the Pinellas County School District revamped its discipline system through restorative practices, a philosophy that encourages teachers to work with students on behavioral problems rather than punish them immediately and remove them from the classroom. Since then, the number of disciplinary referrals given to students has dropped by almost half, leaving some teachers concerned that bad classroom behavior has few consequences. The school district should enhance its training and redouble its efforts to strike the right balance on student discipline.

Pinellas schools first undertook restorative practices in 2015 following a Times series that showed black students were suspended at a higher rate than in most of the state’s other large school districts. In the last four years, reported the Tampa Bay Times’ Megan Reeves, the district has spent about $1 million on the alternative discipline program. But the main result administrators have to show for it is a decreasing number of referrals, a trend that raises nearly as many concerns as it resolves. Some Pinellas schools saw referrals drop by more than 90 percent in five years. Yet it’s not clear whether the disruptive student behavior that triggered referrals has decreased. Some referrals were ripped up in front of students, teachers said. In one case, a teacher wrote a referral for a student who physically hurt other students, but the referral was not processed.

The question school officials must answer is what behavior justifies a referral. At a meeting with the Times editorial board, Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego said the district wanted to reduce referrals for inconsequential issues like “not bringing a pencil" to class. Using a cell phone or violating the dress code can lead to disciplinary action. But so can hitting a student, pulling a fire alarm or falsifying records, according to the district’s code of conduct. These violations vary widely in severity and should not earn the same punishment. Should a student who violated the dress code get a referral? Probably not. But should a student who hit another student escape punishment? No.

Reducing the number of written referrals could create situations where well-behaved students cannot learn because of others misbehaving. It also puts even more responsibilities on teachers who are overburdened enough. At one school, administrators told teachers at the beginning of the school year they needed to devise a behavioral plan to lessen referrals. If they didn’t, they were told, there would be consequences. One principal told teachers she was not a “believer of referrals.” A teaching assistant at that school wrote three referrals last year. None of them were processed by administrators. There still have to be clear consequences for the most serious bad behavior.

When Pinellas administrators set out to decrease the number of referrals in schools, they had the right intentions. Treat all students the same. Don’t treat all offenses the same. Yet black students are still two times as likely to receive a referral as other students. So there is more work to be done, and training and consistency will be the keys. Better discipline is better for everyone.

Correction: This editorial has been updated to reflect the following correction: the Pinellas County School District has implemented restorative practices for four years and has spent about $1 million on the initiative during that time. An earlier version misstated the number of years.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.


  1. Here’s what readers had to say in Sunday’s letters to the editor.
  2. Editorial cartoon for Saturday/Sunday Andy Marlette/Creators Syndicate
  3. Stock photo. MORGAN DAVID DE LOSSY  |  Getty Images/iStockphoto
    I’m a new mom -- again -- and please remember that many mothers would welcome government policies that make it easier for them to stay home with their kids than returning to work. | Column
  4. Josh Hensley, 43, was found in the waters of Kings Bay in Crystal River. He was known for dressing as Jack Sparrow. Facebook
    Here’s what readers had to say in Saturday’s letters to the editor.
  5. David Colburn was the former provost and senior vice president of the University of Florida. JAMIE FRANCIS  |  Tampa Bay Times
    He believed that diversity is our strength, and that the way to overcome division is to shine light in dark corners, writes Cynthia Barnett.
  6. Adam Goodman, national Republican media consultant
    With Washington once again failing to embrace reforms following mass shootings, it’s up to Americans to create a movement to demand change. | Adam Goodman
  7. Couple, Lewis Bryan, 36, (back left) and Amber Eckloff, 33, pose for a portrait with their children, (From left) D'Angelo Eckloff, 14, Rasmus Bryan, 4, Ramiro Bryan, 10, Lothario Bryan, 6, and Alonzo Bailey, 17. The family has been living at the Bayway Inn on 34th St S. Friday, Aug. 30, 2019 in St. Petersburg.  MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE   |   TIMES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    When about 40 percent of city households are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing, something has to change.
  8. A judge ruled in June that it is up to Hillsborough County Commissioners to decide how much money the bus agency and other transportation projects get from the one-cent transportation sales tax voters approved in November. The board did just that this week.[SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
    Hillsborough commissioners follow through on transportation funding.
  9. From left to right: Florida Department of Transportation workers inspect damage to the Interstate 175 overpass at Sixth Street S caused by a roll-off dumpster truck that left its hydraulic arm upright, according to St. Petersburg police [JAMES BORCHUCK | Tampa Bay Times]; Former Pinellas school guardian Erick Russell, 37, is accused of pawning the Glock 17 9mm semiautomatic pistol, body armor and two magazines he was issued to protect students [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]; Johnna Lynn Flores [AUSTIN ANTHONY | Tampa Bay Times] Tampa Bay Times
    Here are three examples of routine information Tampa Bay governments kept from the public this week.
  10. Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos; Florida state Sen. Tom Lee presides over the Senate's committee on infrastructure and security in Tallahassee, Fla., Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. The committee is considering new legislation to help address mass violence. (AP Photo/Bobby Caina Calvan) Times files/Associated Press
    Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos and state Sen. Tom Lee speak up. When will others?