Editorial: Unequal discipline in Pinellas schools

Despite years of attention, the Pinellas County School District’s approach to student discipline remains seriously flawed and unquestionably imbalanced.
Despite years of attention, the Pinellas County School District’s approach to student discipline remains seriously flawed and unquestionably imbalanced.
Published Dec. 11, 2015

Despite years of attention, the Pinellas County School District's approach to student discipline remains seriously flawed and unquestionably imbalanced. Black students are suspended at rates far higher than in most other large school districts in Florida, often for vague offenses such as "defiance.'' There is strong evidence the rules are unevenly enforced, yet the School District stubbornly refuses to adopt widely accepted discipline strategies used by other districts. There has to be a better way.

In the latest installment of the ongoing series "Failure Factories,'' Tampa Bay Times staff writers Lisa Gartner, Michael LaForgia and Nathaniel Lash analyzed more than 600,000 punishments given to children in the district from 2010 to 2015. The trends are striking and disturbing. Pinellas schools give out-of-school suspensions to black students at four times the rate of other students. Schools have to be kept safe, but more than half of the suspensions given to black students were not for violent offenses but for nebulous infractions such as "not cooperating'' or "class disruption.'' The inescapable conclusion is that black students are more likely to get harsher punishments than other students for the same offenses.

The districtwide discipline findings are as disturbing as those in earlier installments of the Times series, which examined five high-poverty, high-minority, low-performing elementary schools in St. Petersburg. Those schools are among the worst in the state, where eight in 10 students fail reading and nine in 10 fail math. They were left behind as they were resegregated, and the district's failure to send additional staff and resources to them over the years created what U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls a "man-made disaster.''

Beyond the stark numbers, the common threads running through the Times series are particularly troubling. Pinellas School District officials and their defenders suggest Pinellas is no different from other large urban districts dealing with broad societal issues such as crime, poverty and single-parent homes. Yet Pinellas performs worse than nearly every other school district in Florida in educating black students, even when those districts are coping with higher poverty and more crime. The same trends are true with discipline. Black students are 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 argument that Pinellas is no different from any other district in coping with these challenges does not hold up.

Second, Pinellas has had a bad habit of ignoring common approaches used by other school districts to help low-performing students, keep high-quality teachers in challenging schools and fairly discipline children. Unlike other Florida districts, it did not invest in real-time computer systems to track student discipline and performance, or significant bonuses for teachers in low-performing schools, or a special office focused on the success of minority students. Just last week, the Pinellas School Board approved hiring a new administrator to help oversee the efforts at the five failing St. Petersburg elementaries.

Pinellas also stubbornly stands apart in its approach to student discipline, which calls for every school to write its own discipline plan. The district is one of just two of Florida's 20 largest school districts that does not use a discipline matrix aimed at handing out more uniform punishments and making the process more colorblind. Miami-Dade does not give out-of-school suspensions. Hillsborough students are not disciplined for being in an "unauthorized location,'' yet Pinellas suspended children more than 1,700 times over five years for that infraction. Pinellas even prohibits suspended high school students from getting full credit for makeup work, a counterproductive policy dropped by other districts.

For too long, Pinellas considered itself to be no different from its peers in educating black students from poor families when the results were significantly worse. It resisted change while other districts invested, experimented and embraced common best practices. The students and the entire community have paid a terrible price for the neglect, and change still is not coming fast enough.