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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
TAMPA -- All children misbehave, but some are more likely to be disciplined than others in Hillsborough schools.
Boys are sent to the principal's office almost twice as often as girls. And minority students are far more likely to receive referrals than their white classmates.
Such discipline trends often fly beneath the radar. Schools report annually on problems that escalate beyond the classroom, from disobedience to drug possession. But unlike academic indicators, student misbehavior doesn't receive much public scrutiny.
The St. Petersburg Times conducted an analysis of all discipline incidents last year in Hillsborough County schools. The review found several disturbing patterns:
Boys were involved in 65 percent of all disciplinary incidents. There was only one type of violation where girls outpaced boys by a significant margin: dress code.
Black boys were involved in one in four discipline incidents -- more than anyone else and far more than their percentage in the overall school population. They were frequently cited for vaguely defined transgressions, such as disobedience and inappropriate and disruptive behavior. By contrast, white students, the largest racial group, were cited less often. The handful of categories they dominated generally allow little room for interpretation, such as possession of alcohol, drugs and tobacco, leaving campus without permission, truancy and vandalism.
School officials are concerned that bullying is being under-reported. Many schools cited zero incidents. Fewer than 300 bullying incidents were recorded last year, most of them by middle schools.
School officials say they are well aware of the issues. They are asking principals to increase their focus on discipline when the new school year starts Monday.
"The climate makes a difference," said Lewis Brinson, Hillsborough's assistant superintendent for administration. "When you stop bullying, when you stop fighting, when you stop students coming to school late, you increase your focus on academics."
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At a summer training session for principals, Brinson asked for a show of hands. How many knew their school grade? How many had begun to review test results to identify students needing extra help?
"You need to do the same thing with these students who are misbehaving," he told them.
But the numbers, compiled by every school, may not tell the full story. Reporting inconsistencies make comparisons difficult. A fight at one school might get written up as inappropriate behavior at another.
Some schools record virtually no discipline problems. Others look like more dangerous places. Parents, teachers and administrators must dig to understand the circumstances at their school.
Bryant Elementary in northwest Hillsborough reported just 31 disciplinary incidents last year. Principal Karen Bass laughs off the notion that her children are angels.
"Children are children, wherever you are," she said. "What we're really trying to do is change behavior."
She doesn't like to use the word "discipline," preferring "classroom management." Her teachers must write up plans on handling it. They include a series of steps, involving parents and guidance counselors, before a referral generally is written.
The student population can make a big difference.
Bryant's students mostly come from well-off families. Bass said she faced more challenges in her previous assignment at a high-poverty, diverse school. The children there struggled with more emotional issues, but she found that clear expectations still were key.
Each school's approach is due to receive scrutiny this year, as principals are urged to make discipline a top priority. To start, administrators analyzed last year's statistics at the summer training session.
"As you look over this data, you begin to see patterns," Brinson warned them. "You begin to see things you don't want to see, but it's a reality."
Debbie Devine can vouch from firsthand experience. She says her son, 13-year-old Nicolas Rivera, has been blamed for trouble he didn't start.
"You have nothing to stand on," she has told him. "You're a boy, that goes against you. You're Hispanic, that's the other thing that goes against you.
"Whether it's your fault or not, you'll get blamed for it."
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Experts caution that the biggest problem with boys may be that they are misunderstood. That may be even more true with minority students.
Boys roughhouse. They learn by doing. By middle school, when discipline incidents soar, many have a child's immaturity but a man's appearance.
"If we don't have the right environment of learning and emotional growth, it's very easy for them to get in trouble," said Mike Trepper, executive director of the Boys Initiative Tampa Bay, a nonprofit that is working closely with the school district.
The stakes are especially high for black boys, who were involved in 27 percent of discipline incidents last year even though they account for just over 10 percent of the population.
Cultural misunderstandings may be a factor. White females make up the majority of Hillsborough's teachers.
"I sometimes think the African-American male has gotten a bad reputation," said Natalie Smith, a seventh-grade teacher at Stewart Middle School near downtown Tampa. She finds that some of the children already are labeled troublemakers by the time they get to her room.
Smith, who is African-American, believes some black boys struggle to make sense of conflicting messages. Those from single-mother homes may be the male head of their household. They make the rules. Then at school, they must follow them.
A disconnect surfaces in the numbers.
Across Hillsborough, black students were cited for "disobedience/insubordination" and "disrespectful" behavior almost twice as often as white students.
The Hillsborough chapter of the NAACP would like to see stronger definitions for such offenses.
"I don't know what you consider as disruptive," said Brenda Jordan, the chapter's education chairperson. "Did the child just talk back, or did the child use profanity with you?"
Brinson, the assistant superintendent concerned about the discipline reports, notes that misbehavior can't always be neatly defined. Yet he worries, too.
"All I know is something's not working," said Brinson, who is a black father with three children in public schools. "We have to find a way to fix it."
The trends are familiar to Sam Wright, director of multicultural affairs at the University of South Florida and an African-American parent. He recalls times when his son, now a high school senior, got in trouble for things that could have been avoided.
Still, he considers the school system one piece in a larger puzzle to solve. He thinks parents should be involved early in the disciplinary process. He wonders if concerned citizens could become advocates for children.
"I can't blame the school system for everything," said Wright, who serves on the district's citizen advisory committee. "Yes, there are some problems. But we're in this together."