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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Hillsborough school district should not keep secret bad behavior by substitute teachers

The Hillsborough County School District, in collusion with its staffing company, has devised a cynical way to keep revealing details about problematic substitute teachers out of the public eye. After the Tampa Bay Times exposed numerous instances of substitutes behaving unprofessionally, the district vowed to address gaps in its arrangement with a staffing company that allow unqualified people to fill in for absent teachers. But the district's so-called solution lacks transparency and is not in the best interest of students.

Here are the kind of details the public no longer sees:

• An elementary substitute once slapped a child to wake him up from a nap.

• A girl was told by a substitute that she had a "stripper name."

• A middle school substitute who was running late sent his twin in his place.

Those incidents and others were gleaned from "Do Not Use" forms filled out by principals and revealed in a January investigation by the Times' Marlene Sokol. There were instances of substitutes sleeping on the job, calling students names, using racist, sexual and other inappropriate language and being physically violent.

Kelly Educational Staffing, the school district's vendor for placing substitutes, has a contract worth $15 million to fill vacant shifts. Many substitutes are retired teachers, but Kelly also hired former teachers who were fired or resigned after misconduct allegations, poor performance reviews or a lack of professional certification, the Times found. Confronted with such indefensible breakdowns in oversight, Superintendent Jeff Eakins promised improvements.

Now principals fill out a revised "Do Not Use" form when a problem with a substitute arises. They then contact a Kelly employee directly to provide additional explanation for why a substitute should no longer be sent to that school. The district says it's being more "proactive." The problem: the new form no longer has space for principals to describe problematic behavior. That information is commonly relayed over the phone, meaning there is no way to know what really happened at the school. This is not the way to improve a system that clearly needs more public scrutiny, not less. And it's a blatant scheme by the school district and Kelly to quash potentially embarrassing revelations.

Substitutes play an outsize role in Hillsborough schools, doing much more than occasionally filling in when teachers are sick for a day or two. Substitutes fill more than 170,000 vacant teaching shifts a year. Children in poor and low-performing schools are more likely to be taught by substitutes because of high turnover. And full-time teachers rely on them to execute lesson plans and tests and take reliable care of students in their absence. Ensuring that the substitute ranks are filled with qualified, competent people is a basic and ongoing responsibility.

So far, the Hillsborough school district is not meeting that obligation. Eakins is set to meet with Kelly officials today behind closed doors to discuss the company's discipline policy and other issues. He should demand more openness — and commit to it himself, starting with a return to forms that allow parents to know what's happening with substitutes who are teaching their kids.

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