The numbers, some Hillsborough County school officials say, are alarming and disappointing.
Now school board members want to figure out ways to reduce how many black students are suspended from classes.
“Today is not about pointing fingers at anyone. This is not anything that anyone is proud of,” said Lewis Brinson, assistant superintendent for administration for the school district. “So many school districts are afraid to sit down and talk about the truth. This is a start.”
About two dozen people – some from the school district, others from the black community -- gathered in a conference room Tuesday afternoon with board members to listen to a report about the disproportionate rate at which black students land in trouble.
In a district with nearly 200,000 students, nearly 40 percent are white, while 30 percent are Hispanic and 22 percent are black.
But black males account for nearly half of the cases of inappropriate behavior, records show. And the number of in-school and out-of-school suspensions for blacks dwarfs those of Hispanic and white males.
“This is alarming,” said Victor Fernandez, principal at Leto High in the northwestern part of the county.
“This is very, very serious,” said Tonya Lewis, a community activist who attended the workshop, called solely to address the issue. “It’s very disappointing.”
It’s also not something that just started. It’s been a problem that district officials have been aware of for years.
“This is not a new phenomenon,” Brinson said. “We’re not sitting back idly not addressing these issues.”
Ross Anderson has been trying to be part of the solution for the last seven years.
He works as a resource teacher at Steinbrenner High and Van Buren Middle schools. His target audience is at-risk students.
Teachers need to know about their students’ lives and know them as more than just a number, Anderson said. They need to recognize if a student struggles because he has a parent in jail or is being raised by an elderly grandparent or maybe struggles reading.
Those are reasons a student might misbehave in class, he explained.
“The key is building a positive relationship with students,” Anderson said. “That’s the fix.”
Knowing a student’s struggles wouldn’t mean a teacher would look the other way if poor behavior occurs, however.
“It wouldn’t be a free pass,” Anderson said. “But it’s knowing and understanding. Maybe making some concessions.”
Too many times, Lewis said, teachers are more prone to just want to get rid of students who pose problems instead of working with them.
“It’s easier to suspend them than to keep them there,” she said. “Sometimes it takes that one-on-one counseling, sometimes it takes somebody who cares.”
“Kids don’t care what they know until they know that you care,” said school board chairwoman April Griffin. “Words are very powerful.”
She said the district should offer alternatives to out-of-school suspensions.
“Maybe they need to clean a bus,” Griffin said. “Maybe they need to go into the cafeteria and serve other students at lunch.”
Board members talked about the need for teachers to take cultural sensitivity training to better understand their students. They discussed the need for more teachers who look like their students – especially black male teachers,
“It can’t be on the back burner,” board member Doretha Edgecomb said. “It has to be No. 1.”
Whatever is done, it will take more than the district to correct the problem, many at the meeting acknowledged.
“We can’t do it without you,” Brinson told community members. “We have to come together.
“This is the only way we can save these kids,” he added. “We can’t leave this group of kids behind.”