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Suspended students may soon get school

BRADENTON — A group of community leaders hopes to establish an alternative classroom setting for students suspended from public school campuses.

The alternative school is the latest project of the CEO Roundtable, a group of elected leaders, educators, health officials and representatives of the judicial system who meet quarterly to address problems facing at-risk youth.

Not just an education issue, off-campus suspensions present a public safety problem as well, said Mike McCann, director of dropout prevention for the Manatee County School District.

Law enforcement has linked high rates of burglary and vandalism, especially during the school day, to truant and suspended students, said McCann, who chairs a committee appointed by Roundtable members to find a solution.

McCann gave Roundtable members an overview of the alternative school proposal at Friday’s meeting, chaired by Superintendent Tim McGonegal.

Staffed by three teachers, three assistants, plus an intervention specialist and coordinator, the alternative school could serve up to 50 students at a time, McCann said. The project has a $452,000 budget, which includes rent, salaries, educational materials, lunches and services for those students who are suspended from school campuses. The committee has suggested housing the school at a local community center.

To date, no funding for the project has been identified, but McCann and his committee have made a preliminary presentation to the Children’s Services Advisory Board, which recommends how to spend the Children’s Services Tax, a portion of the county property tax dedicated to help at-risk children and youth.

The project has gained widespread support from Roundtable members. County Commissioner Joe McClash and school board member Barbara Harvey first brought the suspension/crime problem to the attention of the Roundtable last year.

Harvey was troubled by the large number of children she saw walking the streets during school hours. Conducting her own survey, Harvey learned that many of the teens were not truant, but suspended.

Sheriff Brad Steube echoed Harvey’s call for an alternative that would promote positive behavior rather than letting kids free to do as they please.

Judge Scott Brownell, who has years of experience in Family Court, cautioned that many suspended or truant students involved with crime come from families that have little access to support services.

“Many come from families where both parents work or else no one works,” Brownell said. “Truancy is a red flag that a family can’t function or hold it together. It’s going to take a lot of circling the wagons to get these kids and their families the social services they need.”

Manatee Glens Hospital, which provides mental health and addiction recovery services, is ready to help, said Mary Ruiz, chief executive officer. Manatee Glens also provides services to foster children through the Safe Children Coalition.

“We have found that if you link families to support services, most families make it,” Ruiz told Roundtable members. “It’s not rocket science. We know what to do.”

The problem, Roundtable members agreed, is finding the funding in a year when more budget cuts loom.

McGonegal suggested using a temporary workforce to staff the alternative school since the number of suspended students will likely vary from week to week.

The average off-campus suspension is one or two days. Students who commit more serious offenses get 10-day suspensions. District-wide, an average of 55 students a day are on suspension at any one time, said McCann, who wants to take a proactive approach.

“We know it may be too late to turn some of these students around, but if we can reach the first offenders and help resolve their issues, maybe we can do something about it,” he said.

Next, McCann’s committee takes the alternative school proposal to the county’s Public Services Committee later this month.