TAMPA — Hillsborough school officials are working to keep troublemaking students in class as much as possible.
They ramped up their efforts this school year with the addition of a new program that tracks suspension rates and looks at how to turn around a disturbing trend: Disciplinary action is meted out to students of color at far greater rates than to students as a whole.
It’s a trend that rose to national attention Wednesday when the Obama administration issued new recommendations on classroom discipline, seeking to end apparent racial disparities in dealing with violations of school rules.
“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said.
Lewis Brinson, Hillsborough’s assistant superintendent for administration, welcomed the call for a national effort to answer a challenge the Hillsborough district has faced for years.
“This is an issue not just in Hillsborough County but throughout the nation,” Brinson said. “Student achievement is not going to go up if we don’t keep them in school.”
Last school year, the graduation rate for black Hillsborough students as measured by federal standards was just 59 percent, a slight increase from the previous year. The rate for Hispanic students was 68 percent. That compares to the districtwide rate of 74 percent.
In schools nationwide in the 2011-12 school year, black students without disabilities were more than three times as likely as whites to be expelled or suspended. The same is true in Hillsborough County, Brinson said.
Nationwide, more than half of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement were Hispanic or black, according to 2011-12 government civil rights data.
Civil rights advocates have long said that a “school to prison” pipeline stems from zero tolerance policies that target black and Hispanic students, bringing them out of school and into the court system. Those types of policies, which became popular in the 1990s, often spell out uniform and swift punishment for offenses such as truancy, smoking or carrying a weapon. Violators can lose classroom time or become saddled with a criminal record.
Last year, in Hillsborough County, the district received a request from the local NAACP to enact a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions as part of a proposal for improving the academic performance of minority students.
The federal recommendations Wednesday include establishing procedures on how to distinguish between disciplinary infractions that should be handled by school officials and major threats to school safety. Schools were also encouraged to collect and monitor police data to ensure fairness in enforcement.
In Hillsborough County, misbehavior is handled by the school first, if possible, Brinson said.
Under its policies, when a student is on the verge of arrest, the case is run by the district’s security chief, David Friedberg, who works with local law enforcement to make the final call.
“We try to avoid arrests as much as possible,” Brinson said, noting that student arrests are down this year. “Once a child is arrested, it’s on his record.”
On another front, a group of Hillsborough school administrators called Educators for Change meets with black and Hispanic students to provide guidance in dealing with behavior issues.
In Pinellas County, a new discipline policy is in the works. It emulates one enacted in Broward County that includes an agreement with local law enforcement agencies to ensure that students who commit “nonviolent, minor offenses” don’t end up with a police record prematurely.
Last school year, only 56 percent of black male students graduated from Pinellas County high schools, and black students’ Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores also lagged behind.
The federal recommendations — delivered Wednesday by Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan — encourage schools to ensure that all school personnel are trained in classroom management, conflict resolution and approaches to de-escalate classroom disruptions.
They are nonbinding, but, in essence, the federal government is telling school districts around the country that they should adhere to principles of fairness and equity in student discipline or face federal scrutiny if they don’t.
Discipline data in Hillsborough saw a significant shift from the 2011-12 school year to 2012-13 – out-of-school suspensions of black students were cut nearly in half, from 4,000 to less than 2,000. That number decreased by 45 percent for Hispanic students with less than 1,000 out-of-school suspensions last school year. For white students, the number decreased to less than 1,000, a 39 percent.
More parents are opting to put their children in a program called ATOSS, or alternative to out-of-school suspension, where students continue their lessons at an off-campus center where they are held strictly accountable for their behavior. The students are still considered to be in class.
Doretha Edgecomb, the only black member of the seven Hillsborough County School Board, said she was pleased to hear the district is addressing these issues.
“I think we need to continue conversations with our community and with our parents,” Edgecomb said. “The school district realizes there is a need to do things differently. What I want to be sure happens is that we don’t settle for small increases. We want to work harder and move faster in making those things happen.”
Brinson said teacher training for dealing with behavior problems is ongoing, but more is needed.
He said he also hopes to offer more training for students on how to deal with confrontation and appropriately communicate with adults.
A plan to add school security officers to elementary schools will give students an opportunity to form positive relationships with authority figures at an early age, Brinson said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.