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Suspension without rules
A popular tactic in Hillsborough schools for getting parents' attention isn't monitored.
By LETITIA STEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 1, 2007
TAMPA - The student kept spreading rumors about a teacher having sex with another student until Middleton High School administrators suspended her.
But not in any fashion mentioned in the school district's student handbook. This student was "suspended pending conference," a disciplinary action for which Hillsborough school officials have no written policy.
It happens a lot. Last year, Hillsborough schools reported more than 4,800 incidents in which officials sent students home until their parent or guardian contacted the school.
Administrators say it's an effective tool when they're having trouble getting the attention of parents. They say most students return in a day or two but concede there are no district records documenting how long the students actually are out.
Several School Board members were unaware of the practice until the controversy at Middleton, where the student missed a week of school and now is suing the district. They want a review.
"We need to look at things in a common sense kind of way," said board member Susan Valdes, who worries parents may get the wrong idea. "It bothers me that it's a perceived suspension when indeed it really isn't, because they just need to talk to the parent."
Neighboring schools in Pinellas and Pasco seem to get by fine without the practice. Officials in both districts say they encourage parental involvement but don't have anything like Hillsborough's suspension pending conference.
"You're either suspended or you're not," said Lizette Alexander, Pasco's director of student services.
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Lewis Brinson, the assistant superintendent who oversees discipline in Hillsborough schools, says the practice is highly effective. Parents don't always return calls to schools. Students delete messages left on home answering machines or fail to deliver school letters.
Sending a student home until a parent meets with administrators gets results, he said.
"It adds a level of immediacy or urgency to it when you say 'suspension pending conference,' as opposed to just a conference," Brinson said. "Most caring parents will call if not that day, the next day for sure."
But what if a parent or guardian doesn't care?
Brinson said administrators are expected to follow up if they don't hear from the parent the next day. And the students are not supposed to be penalized for missed work. He said he plans to circulate written guidelines to help principals use the option appropriately.
The practice has been around for years. School Board member Doretha Edgecomb recalls using it as an elementary school principal in the early 1990s.
"It was one of those strategies that I had to ultimately use, after I had used every other means of trying to communicate with the parent," she said. "Unfortunately, it may be the only way we sometimes could get the kind of response we needed."
Use of the practice appears to vary widely from school to school.
Freedom High uses it as a step between an in-school suspension and an out-of-school option. By contrast, Spoto High sees it as a way to avoid a true suspension when possible.
"You're not wanting to hurt the student, because if you suspend them, they can lose an awful lot," said Spoto principal Clyde Trathowen, who said he holds the students harmless. "This is kid-friendly."
Plant City High suspended students pending conference more than 500 times last year. Under the school tardiness policy, habitual offenders can face the action when other punishments fail to change behavior, said assistant principal Peggy Obel.
"Once we started doing it, we saw exactly the results we wanted to see," she said.
There isn't even agreement on whether it's a punishment. In the Middleton case, school officials said it was not intended as one.
School Board member April Griffin has a hard time seeing how the suspension pending conference could be considered anything but discipline.
"It's like me sending my kids to their room and saying that's not a punishment," she said.
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In the majority of cases, administrators say they hear from a parent quickly and get the child back in school.
But Hillsborough has no formal monitoring, so there is no way to know if students are slipping through the cracks.
Riverview High assistant principal Cathy Bramlett rarely has trouble reaching parents at her school. She can recall only one instance - at another school years ago - in which she didn't see the child for days.
"It's terrible when you can't get ahold of somebody," she said.
Brinson, the assistant superintendent, acknowledges that district schools have differing levels of parental involvement. Some rarely need to threaten a suspension to reach parents. Others may use the practice frequently.
He doesn't see a concern about fairness for students, saying the practice gives parents a chance to help correct a child's behavior.
And schools, he said, have to balance efforts to help troublemakers with the needs of other students.
"We want to keep kids in school if they are doing the right thing," he said. "If they are not doing the right thing, then we want the parent to help us correct it."
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3400. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.
Hillsborough's "suspensions pending conference" in 2006-07: