Raising concerns about racial disparities in the schools

ST. PETERSBURG – Tropicana Field was filled with nearly 3,000 citizens raising concerns about the high numbers of out-of-school suspensions in some Pinellas County schools and the disproportionate number of suspensions given to African-American students.

Rev. Dr. Manuel Sykes from Bethel Community Baptist Church lead the conversation surrounded by Rev. Frank Peterman of the Rock of Jesus Baptist Church, Rev. Robert Ward from Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, Rev. Clark Hazley from Mt. Pilgrim Baptist church and other community leaders.

They spoke to empty chairs, for only one school board member showed up to the Trop Monday night. School Board member Linda Lerner was the only one who decided to attend the gathering and clergy members were disappointed by her responses to their concerns.

Rev. Sykes announced that School Board members Rene Flowers, Terry Krasner and Ken Peluso had all been confirmed to attend but changed their mind once they saw the questions they would be asked. School Board members Peggy O’Shea and Janet Clark did not respond to the invitation, and Carol Cook informed that she had a previous engagement.

Last year, Pinellas County gave out over 18,000 out-of-school suspensions. African-American students received 66 percent of these suspensions, although they make up only 19 percent of the student body.

Those gathered asked school board members to make discipline policies fair in the district by putting a Matrix in the Student Code of Conduct. A Matrix is a clear chart listing a variety of repercussions that are appropriate for different offenses. Matrixes focus on alternatives to out-of-school suspension and arrest that can be used.

The Federal Department of Education and many national non-profit groups have suggested the use of Behavior Matrixes to address racial disparities in discipline practices. At least 15 counties in Florida have already implemented Matrixes. Broward’s Matrix came as a result of a lawsuit brought by the NAACP. Since implementing their Matrix, Broward has seen a 36 percent drop in suspensions.

School Board Member Lerner said she would not support putting a Matrix in the Pinellas Code of Conduct because she wants administrators to have discretion in how they respond to discipline problems.

Rev. Sykes pointed out that a Matrix still gives administrators flexibility but that blanket discretion has been shown to create racial disparities. However, Lerner’s answer remained “No,” much to the disappointment of the citizens gathered.

“It’s hard to understand why the school board wouldn’t approve of a matrix when there is such disparity as it relates to minority students and out-of-school suspensions. In light of what is happening nationwide, you’d think it would be a no-brainer,” said Rev. Peterman, former Department of Juvenile Justice secretary.

Clergy members acknowledged that there has been a positive step forward in the reduction of school-based arrests based on the collaborative agreement and asked school board members to add the language from the collaborative agreement to the student code of conduct clarifying that alternatives to arrest should be used for nonviolent misdemeanors.

Again, Lerner gave an unwavering “No.”

“I am still perplexed by the school board’s unwillingness to do such a simple thing to address such a serious problem,” said Rev. Ward.

The 3,000 clergy and residents present Monday night work together in the Pinellas Justice Ministry known as FAST: Faith and Action for Strength Together. Mayor Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg and city council were present to commit to ensure that ex-offenders and disadvantaged workers get hired on city construction projects.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Police Chief Anthony Holloway of St. Petersburg and Clearwater Chief of Police Daniel Slaughter were present to be applauded and make commitments regarding reducing youth arrests.

Clergy ended the evening with a plea to those present to urge their congregation members to sign a petition supporting the needed for more clear and consistent discipline policies in the Pinellas County school district.

For more information, please call the FAST Office (727) 823-9197.

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