Hillsborough County Public Schools wants to reduce racial disparities in school punishments


John Doan

Number of suspension days in Hillsborough County from 2014-2019. | source: HCPS

Male students of color are 5.3 times more likely to be suspended than white students for the same infractions. The U.S. Department of Education releases a report that outlines school suspensions each year. The disproportionate punishment of male students of color is a trend that has persisted for the past several decades. Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) mirrors this national trend.

HCPS has placed a focus on improving graduation rates, advocating for 90 percent of each graduating class to walk across the stage by 2020. The current rate of suspension is working against that goal.

In the 2018-19 school year, students served 95,000 suspension days in the district. Because of this, a large group of students has a compromised shot at graduating.

“Kids, unfortunately, fight and at some schools it maybe ten days and it may be a five-day suspension at other schools. So, we know that attendance, behavior, and course performance are the three main determinants for high school graduation,” Chief of Schools Harrison Peters said in an interview. “For us, attendance has been astronomically important. So, when we talk about suspending students and you’re in the eighth grade, if you have one suspension, it decreases your opportunity to graduate exponentially.”

Creating a positive student culture

“We need consistence. Each school needs to have a school-wide behavior plan. Not just a system of consequences, but a system of rewards,” Peters said. “We need to ensure that adults that are interacting with students have this mindset and that they don’t have these implicit biases that could persuade their decisions. What I’ve found is, when committing the same infractions, most times students of color are disciplined more harshly.”

The goal is to create schools centered around a positive student culture, but the harsh punishment of students of color isn’t always conscious.

For English teacher Suzanne Cooks, creating positivity is the most important thing for students who feel disenfranchised because of this trend. Men of Vision (and its companion club, Women of Virtue) seeks to motivate students to pursue something bigger than themselves after high school.

“I think that just the positive energy that Men of Vision brings to Hillsborough High School will cause other black male students to start recognizing what Men of Vision is and that they can go there instead of to their seventh period and just have a little bit of positiveness brought to them, we’re at least hoping to establish that as part of the culture,” Cooks said. “What I would want for them to get out of the club is for them to really know their worth and then really know that they can make a difference in the world.”

This sentiment, according to Cooks, is of utmost importance. “I’m a firm believer in the culture of the school, I’m a firm believer in people valuing education and I’m a firm believer in understanding why people behave the way they do. If we don’t figure out why the behavior exists, then it’s not going to go away,” she said.

Combating implicit biases

“We do a lot of thinking about how we ensure kids stay in school. Not that we don’t suspend them but finding alternatives for keeping kids in school because we know when we keep them in school, they graduate,” Peters said. “But sometimes we have implicit biases that come into play when we’re doing discipline, it often creeps into the consequences that administrators make.”

For Peters, alternative plans are especially crucial considering the historic disparities faced by students of color because of zero-tolerance policies.

“There are very few things that you absolutely have to be suspended for,” Peters said. “You need to put in preventative things like restorative practice and restorative justice because there is no research that says suspension works.”

Zero tolerance education systems operate on an absolute, inflexible set of consequences regardless of the infraction, whereas restorative practices focus more on resolving the issue through a combination of school, parent and community involvement. HCPS has been making a conscious effort to transition to this method over the past two years.

The Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) system is being explored by schools in the county to lessen the divides in the current punishment rates. It focuses on achieving both positive social and learning outcomes rather than punishment.

“I’m an old guy, but we’ve been suspending kids for years. There is no data that supports that suspension works because it’s not a deterrent and it doesn’t change behavior,” Peters said. “Is it to punish children? Or is it really to think through how do I help you to make better choices? It doesn’t mean I don’t think that you need consequences and it doesn’t mean that you’re not held accountable, but if I teach you about making better decisions, I help you and lead and guide you, and teach you to break down barriers, then that’s a more long-term impact.”

Resolving behavior at the root

Peters has seen the need for resolving behavioral issues at the source rather than suspending since his time as a high school principal. Because of this, HCPS is currently working to come up with solutions that combine efforts of administrators with experts in the community on mental health and behavior to solve student problems without adding to the current disparate trends.

And Cooks agrees. To her, resolving behaviors should be about guidance, not punishment. “We need to know why the behavior exists. I, personally, would like to see students with detention where they’re cleaning the 400 building instead because the idea is when a kid goes to do something bad, they’ll stop and say ‘Oh, I don’t want to go to ISS or go to clean the 400 building,’” Cooks said. “The idea is to have something in place that would make them not want to do it but getting suspended means nothing.”

“I meet a lot of students, and I don’t think a single one just wants to be bad. I meet students with challenges who need help and sometimes because they need help, it manifests into certain types of behavior,” he said. “There are so many issues that I think that we have to begin to unpack to understand why students make the choices that they do. I don’t think that students are disrespectful just because they want to be. I do believe that sometimes the environments in which they come from dictate some of those behaviors. School is just a microcosm of their communities.”

Making the change

And often, it’s up to the teachers and administrators. “I think, we as adults, have total control over these situations and the way that we act and react can go a long way with supporting these students. Adults can either act or react in a way that either escalates or deescalates situations,” Peters said.

“If kids feel that there is discrimination, there’s definitely an excuse to be angry or continue to feed into that. If we’re not going to take the time energy to see why the things are happening the way that they are, then it’s never going to change,” Cooks said.

Although HCPS is looking to reduce suspensions, the district isn’t looking to eliminate them. Leaders do want to make the process more effective in resolving behavioral issues. For that, the conversation of reentry to school after a suspension is crucial.

“You don’t just come back to school and we don’t talk about it if you’re suspended. It’s like if you and your boyfriend have a fight at the mall and you walk away and he walks away but you still see him at school, then at some point you have to have a conversation about it,” he said. “I think that schools have the great opportunity to have these reentry conversations because at the end of the day, you made a mistake and we had to suspend you, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t love you or that we don’t care for you.”

It goes beyond just suspensions.

The county is looking to diversify its employees to reduce racial disparities in punishment. If they can employ people who have similar experiences to the students, they hope that disparities in punishments will be reduced significantly.

“When you look across our district, there aren’t a whole lot of teachers that are black male teachers. There are not a lot of Hispanic male teachers or administrators. I think another thing I can do is hire people that look like the students,” he said. “We need to give our students people who they can look up to and feel like they can emulate.”