Fewer pupils suspended from schools
By KELLY RYAN GILMER
© St. Petersburg Times,
The number of out-of-school suspensions dropped 4.5 percent in Pinellas public schools in 2000-2001 even as the district's enrollment grew 1 percent.
According to the district's annual discipline report, out-of-school suspensions dropped from 22,571 to 21,553. The number of suspended students, a figure that filters out repeat offenders, dropped 3.4 percent, from 11,326 to 10,941. About 112,000 students attend Pinellas schools.
The report reveals noteworthy trends:
The number of suspensions dropped most dramatically for high schools. In 1999-2000, officials reported 11,618 suspensions; in 2000-2001, the number fell by 1,135. Middle school suspensions dropped from 9,324 to 9,073.
Suspensions in elementary schools jumped 25 percent, though the raw numbers are relatively small: from 1,383 to 1,732. More on that later.
Black students continue to be suspended at a rate that far surpasses their enrollment. Nearly 39 percent of the students who are suspended are black; in contrast, black student enrollment in Pinellas schools is about 18 percent. A district committee is studying those numbers.
Across all school levels, fighting, defiance and repeated misconduct were among the top five reasons students are suspended. Alcohol was to blame for only 57 suspensions. District officials say they are struggling to keep drug-related offenses down; in 2000-2001, drugs accounted for 423 suspensions.
In middle school, 101 suspensions were attributed to sexual harassment, a number that district officials say is too high but typical for teenagers dealing with roller coaster hormones. The increase since last year likely reflects changing attitudes that such incidents should be reported.
Nancy Zambito, a director of school operations, credited successful middle and high school programs with the steady decline in suspensions. One example is the On-Campus Intervention Program, offered at 16 middle and high schools, which assigns disruptive students to a special classroom where they keep up with schoolwork and get counseling.
At Dixie Hollins High School in St. Petersburg, for example, out-of-school suspensions dropped from 1,609 to 883 during the first full year the On-Campus Intervention Program was used. Principal Jeffrey Haynes said the program is not the only reason for the decline, but certainly a big part of it.
"Every year is different by the mix of kids you have in your school," Haynes said. "(But) that program keeps them in school and not doing other things. The parents support it."
Why did elementary suspensions rise by 25 percent? It's an issue district administrators say they will have to address.
"We're seeing much more serious behaviors in elementary school, and I don't think we're clear on why that's happening," Zambito said. "They just don't seem to be coming to school emotionally stable."
Elementary schools have myriad programs to teach good character and responsible behavior, like the "stop and think" program that gives students steps to follow to make good choices. But there is nothing like the On-Campus Intervention Program for elementary school -- mostly because suspensions have historically been and continue to be a bigger problem with older students.
"We don't feel good about suspensions," said Sheila Jaquish, principal of Skycrest Elementary School in Clearwater, which has a full-time family counselor to work with students. Skycrest's suspensions rose from 22 to 58 last year. "It's a last resort," she said. At Pinellas Park Elementary, principal Vivian Neumann blames the time school started. Last year, Pinellas Park was moved to a later start time: 9:40 a.m. It didn't take long, she said, before her staff noticed an increase in bus referrals and before-school fights. Her suspensions increased from 35 to 88.
This year, Pinellas Park is starting at 7:50 a.m., and already the students' behavior has noticeably improved. So far, there have been no before-school fights, and bus referrals are down by half.
"We found that a lot of the parents left early and left their kids to get ready for school," Neumann said. "That caused a lot of the problems, that kids were coming to school angry."
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