School candidates focus on student conduct

Discipline is a hot topic for those vying for four seats on School Board.

Published August 11, 2006

From the classroom to the board room, student discipline — or the lack thereof — is a hot topic these days in Pinellas County.

Disciplinary referrals are up for elementary school students, both in the classroom and on buses. And violence is on the rise. Two recent surveys, including one by the St. Petersburg Times, indicate that student misconduct is one reason that Pinellas teachers suffer from poor morale.

The situation has become so acute that superintendent Clayton Wilcox has announced a district-wide push to address the issue.

So it comes as little surprise that student discipline is on the minds and the lips of the 16 individuals vying for four seats on the Pinellas County School Board.

Candidates who have spent time as schoolteachers or administrators, as well as those who have worked in business, agree that discipline is a problem in Pinellas schools. Many have made student behavior part of their platforms, but each has a different take on what to do about it.

Speaking at a School Board candidates forum Thursday night, Minetha L. Morris said teachers need increased support from administrators and more diversity training to help them deal with disruptive students. Morris, a candidate in the District 7 race, is a former Pinellas County teacher.

Peggy O’Shea, a professional mediator and a candidate in the District 3 race, disagrees that teachers need more training.

“The message has to be loud and clear to the parents,” O’Shea said. “We can communicate to them through the Student Code of Conduct to say bad behavior won’t be tolerated in the classroom.”

Anne K. Scofield, another candidate in the District 3 race, agrees that parents must be included in the discussion. She advocates a policy that would require schools to immediately contact parents regarding a student’s misbehavior. Parents would be obligated to respond within 24 hours.

“Not being available for contact by the school is not acceptable and should carry a consequence,” Scofield said.

Discipline has been a high-profile issue for years in Pinellas schools, but it became even more prominent after the videotaped handcuffing of a kindergarten student at Fairmount Park Elementary in the spring of 2005.

While some were struck by images of the crying child being surrounded by police, others were just as dismayed by footage of the girl throwing punches and continually defying adults at the school.

The issue gained more traction in recent months as board members, in their role as arbiters in employee discipline cases, were confronted with several instances in which teachers had reacted poorly to bad student behavior. In the course of those debates, “we got more information about the kind of things students were doing,’’ said board member Linda Lerner, who is running for re-election.

As board members discussed whether to suspend or fire teachers, some began to ask whether the district was doing enough about student discipline.

The issue, which has received national attention, may even be affecting the district’s ability to recruit teachers, officials say.

“A lot of people do research before they come to us,” said Sandra Hopkins, a senior human resources specialist with the school district. “After the situation with the Fairmount Park student, some asked, 'How do you teach in a district that does that to a student?’ ”

Wilcox, the superintendent, opened classes last week with a call for more civility on campuses. Though overall statistics don’t show a huge increase in discipline referrals written by teachers, a closer look reveals a problem in elementary schools, Wilcox said.

During the 2005-06 school year, disciplinary referrals for student violence in kindergarten through fifth grade rose 47 percent over the previous year’s and were more than double the number reported in 2002-03. Elementary school referrals for classroom behavior, rules violations and bus misconduct were up an average of 21 percent from the year before.

“When you look deeper into those incidents, some of them are a lot more aggressive than they ever were,’’ Wilcox said. “They are more filled with rage. They’re more angry. … We really want to look at civility to just tone things down a little bit.’’

Ray Tampa, a former elementary school principal and a candidate in the District 7 race, said an increase in referrals may or may not mean student misbehavior is escalating.

“The numbers suggest it’s worse, but that could just be a matter of the teachers being less tolerant of certain things,” Tampa said. “Right now, it’s probably a big issue because of the fact that people are saying, 'Enough is enough.’ ”