TAMPA — Fewer students in Hillsborough County are getting suspended this school year, but questions have arisen about whether the numbers mask a larger problem.
Revisions made this year to the Hillsborough school district’s student handbook stress that removing a student from the classroom should be a last resort. But with few guidance counselors and other support staff to help misbehaving kids, teachers are starting to feel strapped, said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough County Teachers Association.
“The majority of teachers I’ve talked to feel an absolute pressure not to take a variety of disciplinary actions with students, but they’re not being given adequate alternatives to help kids or change behavior,” Baxter-Jenkins said. “It appears being able to provide numbers that look good is more important.”
Judging by reports for the first quarter of school, obtained from the district by the Tribune, suspensions are on track to total fewer than half of last year’s numbers.
There have been 2,522 out-of-school suspensions through the first quarter, which ended Oct. 23, though district data doesn’t differentiate when students are suspended multiple times. That’s a pace of about 10,000 out-of-school suspensions for the school year.
By comparison, in the 2014-15 school year, there were 23,560 suspensions, and in the 2013-14 school year, there were 24,668.
The school district has about 211,000 students.
One behavior category on pace to exceed last year’s numbers is physical attacks — 150 in the first quarter, a pace of 640 for the year. Last school year, there were only 376 attacks that resulted in a student’s suspension. The most attacks this year are all in middle school — eighth grade with 31, followed by seventh grade with 25 and sixth grade with 20.
The most common offense among students who have received a suspension in the first quarter is disruptive behavior, with 655 total suspensions and more than 20 in each grade level, kindergarten through 12th grade.
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This school year, instructors are required to get permission from a school district area superintendent to suspend a student for more than five days. When suspended students return to school, they have action plans that could include visits with a guidance counselor or success coach.
At Greco Middle, administrators roam the halls during class time in case any teachers need help with an unruly student. Each teacher has a partner teacher who will watch a student for them if they are disrupting class, and every student has a mentor willing to step in and take them aside when their behavior gets out of hand.
The teachers, school social workers, assistant principals and school psychologists work together to help misbehaving students, said Alisha Nesbitt, an exceptional student education teacher at Greco.
The goal is for the student to tell the instructor why they were acting out, instead of just receiving punishment, she said. In most circumstances, Nesbitt said, she has learned of extenuating circumstances at home that have helped her connect with students in the classroom.
“We’re really focusing on making sure we have supports in place for students and teachers and we’re really big on having positive behavior system in place to reward good behavior,” Nesbitt said. “There’s lots of reflection going on between where we were last year and now, and I think it’s making a huge difference, but it’s a team effort.”
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But not every school is taking the approach of Greco Middle, said Baxter-Jenkins, the teachers union leader.
At an association board meeting Thursday, some teachers said they feel powerless to control their classrooms. Teachers in low-income schools, like Greco Middle, get extra funding from the state that can help pay for full-time support staff like guidance counselors and social workers. Other schools share those professionals on a part-time basis.
“Teachers are trying to keep their discipline stats down, principals have pressure not to have so many suspensions and, frankly, it doesn’t really help anybody,” Baxter-Jenkins said. “There’s an inordinate amount of pressure not to do anything, and the consequences are showing.”
Baxter-Jenkins said the teacher’s union will soon begin surveying teachers on how the discipline changes have affected their classroom. There are inconsistencies among schools when it comes to teacher support and behavior interventions, she said.
Superintendent Jeff Eakins said teachers should suspend students if they cause significant disruption in the classroom, especially when it poses a safety concern, but he said they should also try to find preventative solutions instead of punishments.
Changes will be made as school officials track the effects of the new policy and work to establish uniform behavior management plans in classrooms, Eakins said; that will take time as schools and teachers find best practices.
“I don’t want any teachers to feel like they aren’t getting support from administration or anyone else,” Eakins said. “We’re making sure they have a classroom where they can teach and students can learn, and I think if you go in any school across the district you’ll find an environment where they have great clarity on student behavior.”
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Research supports the need for Hillsborough’s changes and demonstrates that suspensions shouldn’t be viewed as a solution to changing student behavior, said Heather George, an associate professor in the University of South Florida’s Department of Child and Family Studies.
George has worked in schools across the nation for the past decade — including Heritage, Hugo Schmidt, Pizzo and Thonotosassa elementaries in Hillsborough County — to help instructors take a proactive approach to teaching students appropriate ways to behave.
Research shows that simply suspending students has little effect on school safety and increases the chance the removed student will fall behind academically, drop out of school or turn to substance abuse. Good behavior needs to be taught like reading or any other academic subject, said George, who is also co-director of the state-funded Florida Positive Behavior Support Project.
“The normal human response is, if there’s a problem occurring we want to stop it immediately, and it appears the easiest way to make it stop is to remove the student,” George said. “The problem is that doesn’t teach the student what to do differently next time around and it doesn’t help the teacher problem-solve to prevent it from happening again.”
Rob Kriete teaches English to seniors at Riverview High and said he still goes over the rules with his students every day. Even months into school, students are reminded his classroom is a “no phone zone” and told to take their hats off on the way in the door.
It has helped Kriete build a rapport with his students, and he’s rewarded with good behavior and respect for even small school rules, he said. Still, he hears stories from frustrated peers.
“I hear from fellow teachers that students are taking liberties with smaller infractions like wearing hats or having their cellphones out, and they feel more empowered by our inability to write them up for smaller infractions, which can lead to bigger infractions,” said Kriete, who has spent 23 years in Hillsborough middle and high schools.
“Teachers are implementing many more interventions with students, and the school system is creating a more beneficial environment for students to do better than ever before. I honestly believe that.”
The school board will discuss a new five-year strategic plan Thursday that will continue conversations on school suspensions, Eakins said, and provide for hiring more guidance counselors and support staff if the budget allows.
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One key question under discussion in the district is how to free up a guidance counselor’s time now spent doing administrative duties or overseeing state-mandated testing. “They want to work with kids and help kids. That’s why they got in the business they’re in. But they don’t have the time they need,” Eakins said.
Guidance counselors are responsible for overseeing all schoolwide testing, including college placement exams and Hillsborough school district tests — a responsibility that takes about six weeks of shuffling teachers and classrooms to complete, said Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough teachers union.
At the same time, state funding to schools is focused entirely on students and instructional teachers, leaving local revenue to fund such support positions, Clements said.
Hillsborough seems committed to providing guidance counselors and support professionals to students, but the solution often has been to hire more staff with low salaries, risking retention, she said.
“Unfortunately, it really is a money problem because to have more time you have to have more teachers, and money comes down to politics, so I think our answers will have to be political,” Clements said.
“We’ll do our best at local levels in our schools to try to forget about Tallahassee and do what’s best for our kids.”