Editorial: Overcoming school discipline hurdles

Published May 6, 2013

A solid education is more essential than ever to survive in today's global economy. But for many students, just remaining in the classroom and behaving is a challenge. That's why the Hillsborough County School Board needs to follow through with the discussion it opened last week on how to address the misconduct problems that cause black males especially to be removed from the classrooms.

The board's dilemma is the same as the one facing school districts across the nation — how to improve a disciplinary process that disproportionately punishes black students, and particularly black males. Black students account for 21 percent of Hillsborough's students but 44 percent of the nearly 165,000 misconduct incidents in the last school year. Males accounted for two-thirds of all disciplinary cases and were twice as likely as females to be suspended. And across the board, black males were more heavily represented than their white or Hispanic counterparts.

The question for the Hillsborough School Board is twofold: How does it ensure that the disciplinary process is race-neutral, and how can it manage student behavior in a way that reduces suspensions and other sanctions that drive kids out of the classroom? These students, after all, are not throwaways; the vast majority of discipline cases involve "inappropriate behavior" and tardiness, not more serious acts such as bullying, fighting or chronically disrupting a teacher. The board should examine how inappropriate behavior is defined and handled differently by individual staff and schools, and look at the root causes of why some students are late or skipping class. A solution might be as simple as reaching out more aggressively to students and their families.

The discussion gave the board an opportunity to familiarize itself with the numbers, and the scope of the problem is serious. There were thousands of out-of-school suspensions last year, on top of 50,000 additional cases of in-school suspension. This loss in instruction time adds up to even more trouble for students who may already be struggling academically.

Civic leaders also need to get involved. At listening sessions on the matter last winter, a large number of the 150 students who attended told district officials that they had parental support and positive role models. The missing link in many cases might be mentors or self-help skills that get students through the challenges of adolescence. Whatever the case, the board needs to continue this discussion and find community partners ready to help. There is no reason that thousands of local children, especially those in the formative middle school years, should be stigmatized as write-offs when intervening early would be far more helpful for them and their community.