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Escambia School Board Urged To Change Discipline Policies

Residents in Escambia County are being urged speak up about school discipline and school arrests.  

Community groups such as the ACLU of Northwest Florida and the Escambia Youth Justice Coalition are calling on residents to push for changes in the district’s disciplinary policies, which they say disproportionately impact African American students.

Keyontay Humphries represents both organizations and spoke at Monday's school board workshop. Among other things, the groups are advocating specific amendments to the Student Rights & Responsibilities Handbook before it’s finalized for next year.

First, they want removal of the requirement that a student caught with drugs on campus is automatically recommended for expulsion.

“State statute only requires a zero tolerance policy when it comes to firearm weapons, making a threat, false report bomb threat, not when it comes to drug possession,” Humphries said.

Based on her interpretation, Humphries believes the state encourages school districts to use alternatives to expulsion and law enforcement when possible in order to keep students in school.

“When it comes to misdemeanor level, minor possession, I’m not talking about kids trying to distribute on campus, but minor possession, there are programs available in lieu of expulsion in line with state statute that the district could utilize.”

Otherwise, there are concerns about those who would fall through the cracks with the policy as it’s currently written. As an example, young women who have Tylenol or Midol would be arrested or subject to disciplinary reassignment for up to a year and a half.

Another proposal advocates language that would give parents an opportunity to be a part of the disciplinary decision, when there’s deviation from the district’s discipline matrix.

“In the work that I do, I hear from parents who are engaged,” said Humphries, noting that there are many parents who are not engaged. “But, for those parents who are engaged, they want an opportunity to have a discussion about what happens to their child, and I think we have the opportunity to do that.”

Finally, the district is being asked to commit to drafting guidance that clearly outlines the criteria and procedure for arresting a student at school, which Humphries hopes will be part of a future discussion.

“I just cannot believe a student leaves home in the morning to come to school to be disruptive,” said Ellison Bennett, speaking on behalf of the National Movement for Civil and Human Rights, Inc. Members of the organization are concerned about a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center declaring Escambia County one of the worst in Florida for arresting children.

According to the Department of Juvenile Justice 1,157 juveniles were arrested in Escambia County during 2013-2014; Of those, there were 255 school arrests in the district, including 77 felonies.

Bennett is calling for a community summit to deal with the issue.

“I think if we come together in a summit, leave all the feelings and attitudes at the door, parents, teachers...then we can come to some resolve with the high rate of suspensions, expulsions and arrests that we have to see played out in the news media concerning our children.”

School board member Linda Moultry responded that she’s ready to attend a summit, if certain others are included.

“I’m tired of going to summits where you got the wrong folks in the room,” Moultry said. “The people that need to hear the message aren’t there. So, when you get one together with the right people in the room, you can count me in and we can have a real conversation.”

School Board member Jeff Bergosh said he’s also happy to attend such a summit. But, he adds that participants need to come prepared for a real, courageous conversation about what’s happening in our schools.

“In case you’re not aware of this, we’ve got a big drug problem and it’s bleeding over from the community to our schools,” Bergosh said. “And, so as everyone on this dais knows, I’m not going to go anywhere near weakening the punishment for drugs. School is not a place to bring drugs.”

School superintendent Malcolm Thomas says key for him is the “community” part of the equation, noting that many of the discipline problems on school campuses start elsewhere.

Thomas defended their disciplinary policies as necessary, noting that the 255 students arrested in Escambia County during the past school year was a fraction of the district’s 41,000 students.

Nevertheless, he says proper behavior at school is a must.

“We’re not going to put up with the drugs, but we’re going to catch them and we’re going to deal with them,” said Thomas. He acknowledged the big number of arrests, but added that such incidents would not be tolerated.

“They’re doing it and they’re getting caught and we’re not letting it go and we have to continue to send that message. If we don’t, if we don’t send that same message with violent behavior and drug behavior and all other kinds of things that would happen, the bullying, the violence gets out of control. And, our schools get out of control, and right now they’re not.”

Thomas says the district has been working for several years to improve how it deals with school discipline, with such initiatives such as a “Behavioral Management Plan, and Positive Behavior Intervention and Support.

For her part, school board chairwoman Patty Hightower, she says she would be happy to help facilitate a community summit, and even suggests bringing in the Pensacola City Council and Escambia County Commission for a discussion.

At this week’s board meeting, the panel is expected to vote on and approve the Student Rights & Responsibilities Handbook for the upcoming school year. 

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.