1. Opinion

Column: Why suspensions aren't the answer

As a former teacher, I understand the impact that unruly students can have on a classroom. Teaching is difficult even when students aren't disruptive. When they are, it can be nearly impossible.

But that doesn't mean we should simply throw them out of school or, as happens all too often, lock them up.

Across the country, there's a growing consensus among experts that removing children from the classroom for minor misbehavior does more harm than good. The American Psychological Association has found that suspending students does not reduce disruption or improve school climate. The U.S. Education Department associates suspensions with negative educational and life outcomes.

This shouldn't come as a surprise.

Suspending students doubles their likelihood of dropping out of school. It puts them on the path to the criminal justice system and incarceration. This "school-to-prison pipeline" not only contributes to the country's mass incarceration crisis, it devastates communities of color and locks marginalized children into a cycle of poverty.

Pinellas County schools should take note.

Florida schools lead the nation in the use of suspensions. And Pinellas County schools are among the worst in the state. The Southern Poverty Law Center's analysis of state education data, compiled in a "report card" for the Pinellas school system, found that nearly 70 percent of the state's school districts use suspension less than Pinellas.

This practice takes a heavy toll — especially on black students.

Countless studies have confirmed children of color face harsher discipline than their white peers, and often for highly subjective, minor offenses. They are disproportionately deprived of learning opportunities and their right to an education.

This is certainly true in Pinellas schools, where the U.S. Education Department has opened a civil rights investigation.

Although they are only 20 percent of the student population, black students account for more than half of the district's suspensions and more than 60 percent of arrests. Since 2010, suspensions have cost black Pinellas students more than 250,000 hours of learning time.

The most frequent cause of suspension in Pinellas is the vague — and subjective — offense known as "defiance/insubordination." Others have been suspended for being late to school, a punishment that only deprives them of more class time. Fewer than 20 percent of high school suspensions last year involved violence or drugs.

With one of the highest concentrations of academic failure in the nation, the Pinellas County school district is sabotaging its own efforts to improve by restricting black students' access to critical learning opportunities. The Tampa Bay Times last year found that a vast majority of black students at five schools in southern Pinellas — dubbed "Failure Factories" — failed at reading and math.

A University of Kentucky study recently confirmed suspensions are a significant cause of the achievement gap between black and white students.

Quite simply, students benefit when we keep them in the classroom.

Pinellas school officials have taken a positive first step by responding to the SPLC's call to reduce suspensions. The district has committed to reduce the maximum number of days that a student can be suspended from 10 to five.

But that's only a start. The community is demanding more to reform this broken system. On Monday at 7 p.m., community members will gather at Tropicana Field to demand that school officials take another important step — abolishing suspension entirely.

Faith and Action for Strength Together, the community group organizing the event, is also demanding a disciplinary system that emphasizes positive behavior, problem-solving and individualized interventions for troubled children. Teachers and administrators should be supported with training to help address student misbehavior and reduce the glaring racial disparities in the punishments that are meted out.

There will be resistance to these long-overdue changes, but superintendent Michael Grego and the School Board have broad community support. Without these important next steps and other reforms, students will continue to fall through the cracks. And our communities will continue to pay the consequences.

Amir Whitaker is a staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.