Advertisement
  1. Opinion

Editorial: Urgency needed on discipline changes for Hillsborough schools

The Hillsborough County School District has a serious problem with school discipline and disparity in punishments between white and minority students. But after identifying the issue and committing to address it two years ago, the district appears no closer to finding solutions and implementing changes.
The Hillsborough County School District has a serious problem with school discipline and disparity in punishments between white and minority students. But after identifying the issue and committing to address it two years ago, the district appears no closer to finding solutions and implementing changes.
Published Dec. 16, 2015

The Hillsborough County School District has a serious problem with school discipline and disparity in punishments between white and minority students. But after identifying the issue and committing to address it two years ago, the district appears no closer to finding solutions and implementing changes. This issue and the students who are affected by it cannot wait. The district needs to make revamping its discipline procedures a higher priority and set a reasonable time frame for adopting reforms and moving forward.

Hillsborough County schools interim superintendent Jeff Eakins plans to bring together a group of stakeholders including principals and law enforcement officials to discuss discipline recommendations put forth by the African American and Hispanic Male Task Force. Eakins' decision came after a more than two-hour workshop Tuesday at which only a few of the task force's ideas were presented in a largely circular discussion that lacked focus. The group's recommendations include creating a student bill of rights, adopting a discipline matrix to standardize punishments and rewording the student handbook to remove subjective language for behavior offenses.

Hillsborough has long acknowledged high rates of suspension and expulsion for African-American and Hispanic male students. Districtwide, for example, blacks make up 21 percent of the middle school population but comprised 42 percent of suspensions and expulsions in 2013-14. Separately, the U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights launched an investigation into the district around the time that a local activist filed a complaint about racial bias in school discipline. The district has responded, targeting populations at risk for dropping out of school and holding outreach meetings with African-American and Hispanic males. But getting school discipline under control is the linchpin in any long-term solution aimed at curbing high suspension, expulsion and dropout rates.

There are no easy solutions to a discipline disparity problem that has been years in the making. But Hillsborough's pace on providing solutions has been frustratingly slow. The district held a workshop on the issue with African-American males in April 2013, more than two years ago. With no deadline set for creating a new plan, it will likely be at least another school year before administrators are ready to debut a new districtwide approach to discipline. Until then, students will have to navigate an old system that is widely perceived as unfair.

Although the recommendations from the task force were disappointing, needlessly complex and miles away from being adopted, they include some worthwhile proposals. The group should continue in some form to act as a sounding board for ideas going forward. But the entire effort seems rudderless and needs a champion. Meting out equitable, uniform and fair discipline should be a priority for the school district, which has acted quickly in times of crisis on issues such as transportation, exceptional student education and armed guards in elementary schools. Taking steps to fix its discipline problem and keeping males of color in school qualifies as an emergency, and the district needs to act with urgency. This is the first real test for Eakins, who sheds his "interim" title at the end of the month. He cannot afford to fail.