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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Pinellas takes positive steps on student discipline

The Pinellas County School District finally appears to be headed in the right direction on overhauling discipline policies that have been unequally applied to black students. The School Board agreed this week to reduce the number of days students can be suspended out of school and to other changes aimed at refocusing on education rather than punitive punishment. But there is more to be done, and black families and civil rights groups should continue to demand fairer treatment for minority students and a greater investment in more progressive approaches to student discipline.

The discipline trends have been going the wrong way in Pinellas for years, driven by shortsighted spending decisions and a stubborn refusal to adopt common practices used in many other large school districts in Florida. The Tampa Bay Times' "Failure Factories" series last year documented that black students were given out-of-school suspensions at four times the rate of other students between 2010 and 2015. More than half of the suspensions given to black students were for vague infractions such as "not cooperating" or "class disruption'' rather than for violent offenses. And black students were 17 percent more likely to be suspended in Pinellas than in Hillsborough County, 41 percent more likely than in Palm Beach County and 85 percent more likely than in Miami-Dade. The evidence is overwhelming that Pinellas disproportionately punished black students and that issues such as crime, poverty and other societal factors are no defense.

Now Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego and the School Board are taking some meaningful steps toward addressing the disparities. A new policy, which the board is expected to give final approval to next month, will reduce the number of days any student can be suspended out of school for "reassignable and expellable'' offenses from a mandatory 10 days to a maximum of five days. No student will be suspended out of school for more than five days for any offense. Equally important is that Pinellas will drop its punitive policy that prevents suspended students from getting full credit for makeup work, a practice other districts already have ended.

The school district points to positive trends in testing some disciplinary changes, reporting a 19 percent reduction in referrals and a 13 percent reduction in out-of-school suspensions for black students for the first three months of this school year. That suggests Grego and school principals are focused on the discipline disparities and that the real issue has been a failure in commitment and policy rather than societal changes. But it is going to take a sustained commitment and more money to make a permanent difference.

Pinellas remains one of just two of Florida's 20 largest school districts that does not use a discipline matrix to help ensure punishments are more uniform and colorblind, and that issue deserves more attention. The district also should adopt Miami-Dade's policy of banning out-of-school suspensions, which serve no academic purpose. In the 1980s and '90s, Pinellas had various alternative centers where suspended students were sent to continue their academic work. But those efforts were abandoned at least in part to save money, and Grego appropriately notes that the district cannot ban out-of-school suspensions until it comes up with a workable alternative.

That is just one reason why organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center; FAST, a coalition of churches and synagogues; the Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students, which has asked a judge to resurrect a 15-year-old class-action lawsuit; and the NAACP's St. Petersburg branch cannot let up. Don't cave to School Board member Linda Lerner's plea that everyone just get along and lock arms with the district. The Pinellas Education Foundation, the nonprofit that should be more directly helping minority students who have been unequally treated, already fills the role of district apologist.

These systemic failures that disadvantaged black students in Pinellas County played out over years. As encouraging as the latest discipline trends appear, they have to be sustained. There should be broader policy changes and a greater financial commitment to alternative programs. Three of the seven School Board seats will be on the ballot in August, and it will take a concerted effort to ensure these issues remain at the top of voters' minds as they evaluate the candidates and their commitment to equal treatment for all students.