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Saturday, Oct 25, 2014
Editorials

Editorial: Minority discipline disparity

Published:

The disparity in discipline and achievement rates among Hillsborough minority students is troubling.

But there is more to the issue than mere numbers, and we hope the federal investigation of the Hillsborough County school district focuses on facts, not assumptions.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, as the Tribune’s Erin Kourkounis reports, has requested 43 types of records, including descriptions of offenses, the role of school resource officers and the tenure of each teacher.

The action is based on a complaint from a former educator who has served on the education committee for the local chapter of the NAACP.

We fear getting Washington involved will lead to unnecessary directives and red tape.

But it also is critical that our schools be free from any vestiges of discrimination. If it requires such federal scrutiny to ensure that is the case, then there could be benefits.

Still, the feds — and the public — should look beyond raw numbers. Minority students do have higher rates for being disciplined, as well as dropping out of school. But a higher percentage live in poverty and begin school classified as not being fully prepared.

Such facts don’t eliminate the possibility of discrimination, but do underscore the difficulty of explaining school statistics.

Federal officials also should remember that maintaining classroom order is essential to learning.

Moreover, any analysis also should consider the district’s efforts that have resulted in significant reductions in minority discipline rates over the past few years.

Out-of-school suspensions for black students dropped from about 4,000 to 2,000 from the 2011-12 school year to the 2012-13 year.

School Superintendent MaryEllen Elia tells us the district has made a concerted effort to reduce discipline rates among minorities, including working with parents and faith-based groups.

The district monitors discipline referrals, and teachers who write an unusually high number are given additional training.

The district also offers an alternative to out-of-school suspension, where students can go to an off-campus center and do school work under a teacher’s supervision.

But perhaps most important, Elia says the district is focused on giving minority students the tools for academic success.

It already has dropout prevention specialists who identify and try to aid at-risk students. But at Elia’s recommendation, the School Board recently voted to revise and bolster the effort.

The dropout specialists will be renamed “student success specialists,” and the district will assign a school-based team of the specialists, guidance counselors, social workers and assistant principals to work with students in danger of dropping out.

The students will be helped with time management, reading, writing and other issues, including behavior.

At the same time, Elia says the district wants to be sure minority students are academically challenged and obtain the skills necessary for a successful career. The efforts include enrolling more minorities in advanced placement studies. The number of black and Hispanic students successfully completing AP courses has more than doubled since 2006, exceeding the district’s overall rate.

Hillsborough may still have work to do to improve education for minorities, but the feds should not ignore the evidence that the district is making notable progress.

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