In Pinellas County, kids can be suspended for almost anything. And black students are.
45,942 days lost
Most large Florida school districts are moving away from suspending children for nonviolent misbehavior — part of a nationwide consensus that harsh discipline falls unfairly on black kids and leaves struggling students too far behind.
The Pinellas County School District is an outlier.
Its leaders say teachers and principals know best, and they should be free to suspend students as they see fit.
The result: Black children in Pinellas are suspended at rates seen in virtually no other large school district in Florida. They are regularly kicked out of class for vaguely defined infractions like “defiance,” “excessive tardiness” and “electronic device.”
The Tampa Bay Times analyzed a database of more than 600,000 punishments given to children in the district from 2010 to 2015. Then reporters interviewed leaders of the 20 largest school systems in Florida and examined state records to compare them to Pinellas. Among the findings:
- Pinellas County suspends black children at higher rates than the six other large school systems in Florida. Black students in Pinellas were 17 percent more likely to be suspended than blacks in Hillsborough, 41 percent more likely than blacks in Palm Beach and 85 percent more likely than blacks in Miami-Dade. They were six times more likely to be suspended than black children in Broward.
- More than half of the suspensions given to black students are not for the violent offenses detailed by the Times earlier in this series. They’re not even for borderline cases. They’re for hard-to-define infractions such as “not cooperating,” “unauthorized location” and minor “class disruption.”
- In five years, black students lost a combined 45,942 school days to suspensions for these and other minor offenses. White students, who outnumber black students 3 to 1, lost 28,665 days by comparison.
- Pinellas schools give out-of-school suspensions to black children disproportionately. They suspended blacks at four times the rate of other children based on their respective shares of the population. That’s one of the widest disparities in the state. Sixty-three of Florida’s other 66 school districts hand out suspensions more evenly among races.
- The School Board and district leaders have repeatedly rebuffed calls to adopt a discipline matrix, a tool that other districts use to make discipline more colorblind and to keep more kids in the classroom. Just two of the 20 largest school districts in Florida don’t use a discipline matrix. One is Brevard, whose discipline practices are under investigation by the federal government. The other is Pinellas.
- Pinellas leaders have stuck with policies that make it harder for suspended students to catch up. Pinellas doesn’t staff in-school suspension sessions with certified teachers, as other districts do. It cut all funding for suspension centers where kids could do school work rather than stay home while being punished. And it prohibits suspended high school students from earning full credit for make-up work, a practice most other large districts have abandoned because it needlessly sets kids back.
Keeping order in the classroom isn’t easy. The task is made even harder when teachers and administrators are dealing with children who have emotional problems, who are being raised in extreme poverty or who come from broken homes.
“You have to understand that many of these children come in angry,” said Myrna Starling, who retired in 2010 after nearly 30 years teaching at Maximo Elementary. “Some days I would just have to turn the lights off and say, ‘I guess you don’t want to learn.’ Sometimes we would go 10 minutes with the lights off and heads down.”
But there is a growing consensus among national education experts that suspending children for minor offenses is not the answer. Instead, schools should clearly define each infraction and its appropriate punishments. Experts say that leaves less room for teachers and principals to be influenced, even unconsciously, by racial biases.
In an interview with the Times, Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego acknowledged that unconscious bias plays a role in how often black children are suspended in Pinellas.
But he balked at a one-size-fits-all system, saying teachers and principals must have discretion to do what they think is best. “They know the kid. They know the intent, they know the surrounding issues around that incident,” Grego said. “I believe the way we’re going about it in an intelligent, research-based way is how we’re going to build a different culture. And I see that culture being established school by school.”
Grego noted that, after years of inaction, the district has launched a program to reduce suspensions countywide.
He pointed to a drop in referrals and said suspensions for black children are down 13 percent in the first 60 days of the school year.
He also said that, as of four months ago, the district is compiling the latest research on bias and using it to train principals, so they can avoid bias when punishing children.
But the authors of much of that research told the Times the district should do more to curtail suspensions.
“If they were really serious about addressing this issue, they would follow the examples like L.A., like Oakland, like (Broward), and stop suspending kids for minor offenses,” said Daniel Losen of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, whose work was cited five times in a recent Pinellas research report. “There’s no justification for doing this. If they were really serious they would change the written policy as well.”