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]
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]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Aug. 25, 2019|Updated Aug. 26, 2019

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.

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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.