Editor’s note: This story has been edited to add an explanation of how the school district could not project how many students would be suspended just by doubling the first semester’s numbers.
Student discipline in Manatee schools remains under scrutiny and on the rise.
In a Tuesday-afternoon workshop, the School Board of Manatee County received a mid-year briefing on how many students were being suspended and receiving referrals, and for which offenses.
According to Director of Students Services Willie Clark and Skip Wilhoit, coordinator of safe schools, the school district is on pace for more referrals and more in-school suspensions in 2016-17 than in 2015-16. More students will likely receive out-of-school suspensions but will spend less time out of school than in previous years.
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The district is on pace for more students to receive referrals, in-school suspensions and out-of-school suspensions in 2016-17 school year than in 2015-16.
Clark and Wilhoit reported that:
▪ The district is on pace for 46,942 referrals this school year, compared to 43,311 last year.
▪ The district is on pace for 6,480 students receiving an in-school suspension, compared to 2,812 last year.
▪ 2,334 students have received out-of school suspensions this year; last year a total of 3,920 students received out-of-school suspension.
The projections for 2016-17 show continuing racial disparities in how discipline is meted out in the district. In 2015-16, black students accounted for 14 percent of the student population but 33 percent of out-of-school suspensions.
In the first half of this year, 35 percent of the students who received out-of-school suspensions were black; 29 percent were Hispanic; and 32 percent were white, according to the information presented.
There were some caveats to Clark and Wilhoit’s presentation. Clark said the numbers are typically higher in the first semester, as students learn the rules and what they can and can’t get away with. The projections for the end-of-year numbers are based simply on doubling first semester’s results. And Clark and Wilhoit began their presentation by pointing out that 80 percent of students in Manatee schools received zero referrals.
Wilhoit did not have the number immediately available of how many students had received out-of-school suspensions at last year’s midpoint, but he said it is down from last year. He said the district could not project how many students would be suspended just by doubling the first semester’s numbers because most students who will receive out-of-school suspensions in the second semester were suspended once already first semester. Wilhoit said reducing the number of out-of-school suspensions has been a major focus this year, and he is pleased with the numbers at this point.
Board member Dave Miner asked Clark why the discipline numbers were set to outpace last year’s.
“There’s just so many challenges, some of our students’ families are working two jobs, students having to raise themselves. ... There are just a number of challenges out there,” Clark said. “The school place is no different from some of the things you see riding around the neighborhood.”
There's just so many challenges, some of our students' families are working two jobs, students having to raise themselves...there are just a number of challenges out there.
- Director of Students Services Willie Clark
Wilhoit said minor offenses related to attendance, cell phones, dress code and tardiness contributed to the increase in middle and high school-level referrals.
“These are driving up the increase we see at the secondary level. These four incident categories ... are obviously chewing up a lot of our administrators’ time,” Wilhoit said.
And Wilhoit said several of the more serious behavioral issues, including physical aggression and bullying, had decreased on the secondary level.
Miner wondered whether the answer to the increasing number of discipline issues in Manatee’s schools could be checked by increased funding for school counselors.
“Some of this has been attributed to our limited ability to provide counseling on the school level, to have better approaches toward dealing with students who are repeaters, to help them understand better ways, good social conduct. I’m inclined to think that’s part of the problem and part of the solution,” Miner said. “We have staffing limitations because of financial limitations, and I think what we are seeing here is a broad cry for that need and that finance.”
What we are seeing here is a broad cry for that need and that finance.
- Board member Dave Miner
Board members were pleased to see that students were losing fewer days to out-of-school suspension. Last year, students were suspended out of school for a total of 19,323 days, whereas this year the district is on pace for 16,122.
“Out-of-school suspension does the student no good and it does the system no good,” board member John A. Colon said.
Board Chair Charlie Kennedy has been advocating for the county to investigate “restorative justice,” a disciplinary philosophy that minimizes out-of-school suspensions and focuses on restoring the relationship between a student, teacher and administrators after a behavioral incident.
After the meeting, Clark said the discipline issues are complex and that there was no simple fix.
“If there was a silver bullet, I’d tell you. It’s not a school issue per-say, it’s a community issue,” Clark said. “You talk to businesses, and they’ll say tardies, dress code are issues they are dealing with.”
Note: This story has been clarified to reflect the number of students who received out-of-school suspension this year, rather than the projected number of students who will receive out-of-school suspension.