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Schools adjust suspensions
After a controversy over one student, Hillsborough schools put the rules in writing.
By LETITIA STEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 29, 2007
TAMPA - Hillsborough schools have new rules for suspending students pending a parent conference, a little-known practice that became controversial when it was used against a student spreading rumors about a teacher sex scandal.
School officials issued the guidelines after the St. Petersburg Times reported that Hillsborough had no written procedures for the disciplinary action, even though it was used nearly 5,000 times last year.
The problem came to light when a Middleton High student was "suspended pending conference" after spreading rumors about a teacher having sex with another student - a story that police later said was true. She missed a week of school.
Under the new guidelines, that shouldn't happen again.
For principals, suspension pending conference is a tool for situations that could lead to harsher consequences. It might be used if principals can't reach parents by other means to address an ongoing behavior problem.
When using the measure, schools should notify parents of their responsibilities by phone message and a letter sent home with the student.
If the school does not hear back from a parent the next day, administrators will suspend the child for a maximum of three days. They must send a letter home by mail.
Principals can lessen the pain later. They have flexibility to go back and change the suspension to an excused or an unexcused absence, depending on the outcome of the conference.
"Bottom line is we need parent communication," said Lewis Brinson, Hillsborough's assistant superintendent for administration. "We're going to do our part, but we can't make parents answer their telephones, and we can't make them read letters."
He said the practice is intended to prevent suspensions.
Brinson noted that principals are able to schedule phone conferences with working parents who can't meet in person.
But if parents won't do their part, he said principals have no choice but to send the child home.
"By no means are we going to jeopardize the safety and orderliness of our schools by another child's behavior," he said. "We have too many kids that are doing the right thing in Hillsborough schools. We're going to make sure that they have an opportunity to learn and that teachers have an opportunity to teach."
The attorney for Shatavia Kendricks, the 15-year-old Middleton suspended pending conference for spreading rumors, welcomed the district's efforts to bring clarity to a practice that previously lacked regulation.
Still, he worried about all the students penalized in the past.
"I view this as an acknowledgement that the previous policy that negatively impacted Shatavia was wrong," attorney Darryl Rouson said. "It lent itself to widespread abuse according to whoever happened to be principal or administrator enforcing it."
Shatavia intends to sue the district.
School officials defend the practice as highly effective and say it should not be judged by the Middleton case.
Brinson noted that he has never received a phone call from a parent upset about a suspension pending a conference, but he has fielded many angry calls over straight suspensions.
Practices have varied widely by school, the Times found. Several School Board members were completely unaware of this discipline approach before the Middleton incident. Neighboring school districts in Pasco and Pinellas say they don't have anything similar in place.
In Hillsborough, there even was disagreement over whether to call it a punishment. School officials initially said Shatavia wasn't being punished, although her lawyer said it sure felt like it.
Brinson acknowledged that's a matter of perspective. "You can avoid punishment. That's what the administrators are doing - giving you a chance to avoid punishment," he said.
And it's a common event. Last year, Hillsborough schools reported more than 4,800 incidents in which officials sent students home until their parents or guardians contacted the school. Most were at middle and high schools.
Brinson said school officials have not decided whether to publicize the guidelines where students and parents could learn about it. The rules, recently circulated to principals, did not require a School Board vote.
Board member Doretha Edgecomb is watching the reaction at schools. She thinks it's crucial to inform students and parents.
A former school principal, she also hopes that people won't look at the practice narrowly. Educators want children in school but need them focused on learning, she said.
When they are not, there need to be consequences.
"Where do you draw the line?" she said. "This is one mechanism."
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.