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Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Bryce: Pinellas school suspensions drop, but we can do better

Even though my kids are grown and off the payroll, I still have friends with teenagers in high school who tell me about incidents where students are suspended or expelled. Sometimes, students are taken away in handcuffs. Back in my day, nobody was suspended, though I vividly recall we had corporal punishment — along with dress and hair codes and detention. Keep in mind, I went to high school up north during the late 1960s.

Wanting to know more, I checked out the suspension statistics for Pinellas County Schools. I found the high school stats to be most illuminating.

Total school suspensions have dropped nearly 51 percent over the last 10 years — a remarkable achievement. The numbers suggest the schools are doing a better job of controlling the campus environment. This is attributed, in part, to a school district program called Positive Behavior Support/Response to Intervention, which has been in place here for the last four or five years. The intent of the Positive Behavior Support part of the program is to reward students for good behavior. Schools devise suitable plans to reward students, such as credits for use in the school cafeteria. The intervention part of the program aims to reduce potential disciplinary issues and keep students in a positive learning environment.

The schools follow a progressive discipline policy, where students receive warnings for first offenses, followed by disciplinary action on repeat violations. Students guilty of serious offenses, such as fighting or drugs, face immediate suspension.

Despite the success, problems persist. Some schools are still seeing an inordinate number of suspensions. At the top of the list is Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, which had 558 – 9.5 percent -- of the nearly 5,900 suspensions at Pinellas County’s 17 high schools during the 2012-13 school year. Countryside High School in Clearwater had 533 suspensions, while St. Petersburg’s Dixie Hollins High School had 507. The average number of suspensions across all the high schools was 364.5.

Most of these reasons behind the suspensions suggest socialization problems. Defiance and insubordination accounted for 16 percent of suspensions, according to the school district. Profanity and obscene language accounted for 12 percent of suspensions, followed by causing class or campus disruptions (11 percent) and fighting (also 11 percent).

Our teenage years are generally awkward as we mature into adulthood, but schools could probably do a better job of helping students with a little more discipline and structure. If you take elements such as disrespect, lack of courtesy and bullying, you eliminate distractions and pave the way for an environment where students can focus on learning.

One item among the school district statistics I found disturbing was the growing number of suspensions due to unauthorized use of electronic devices. That made the Top 10 list for the first time in 2012-13. Whereas there were just 19 suspensions in high schools for that in the 2003-2004 school year, there were 197 (3 percent) in 2012-2013, and the pace shows no sign of abating.

Fortunately, the county has a policy prohibiting electronic devices during the school day, except lunchtime. But the technology addiction of the teens has become so strong that some are willing to violate school policy and risk suspension.

Overall, Pinellas County school administrators are to be commended for bringing the number of suspensions down over the years, but there is still work to be done. Simple discipline and structure can produce beneficial results. I believe students are actually yearning for it in order to level the playing field. Bottom line: Parents should consider if the average of 346.6 suspensions per high school is an acceptable number.

Keep the faith!

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