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Hillsborough School Board to workshop recommendations from minority task force next month

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A task force formed to study why there are severe racial disparities in discipline and graduation rates for black and Latino teen boys in Hillsborough County presented their recommendations to the School Board Tuesday afternoon.

Among the recommendations include revisions to the code of conduct in the school handbook, a student bill of rights, and sustainability, said task force member Manny Rivero, executive director of the Jim Walter Partnership Center at the University of South Florida.

“One of my biggest concerns is that this task force continue the work that it’s doing,” he told school district members.  “It can’t be done over night.”

The group was formed two years ago, appointed by School Board members and Assistant Superintendent Lewis Brinson. Dr. Michael Cooper said the group originally met once a month, but said more recently it’s been two and sometimes three times a month.

Just 60 percent of black students and 68 percent of Latino students graduate from Hillsborough high schools. For white students, the graduation rate is nearly 83 percent.

And going back to the 2011-2012 school year, black students were three times as likely to get expelled.

Hillsborough County schools are also being investigated by the Department of Justice due to a complaint that the district discriminates against black students by disciplining them more intensely than white students.

“While the topic was African-American and Hispanic males, the discussion was on discipline for all of our students,” said school board member Cindy Stuart. “We have to encompass every single student in the district, from Pre-K to 12th grade.”

School board member April Griffin was excited about the Student Bill of Rights, though she confessed that it was probably “giving heartburn” to some school officials. She also said that it was important to teach students “that it’s okay to fail. We’ve made them afraid  to fail.” She added that while there’s a lot of work to do, “this is an exciting day.”

School board member Dorothea Edgecomb said one “R word” that she wasn’t hearing as part of the conversation was responsibility. “I don’t know if we can talk about rights without talking about responsibilities,” she cautioned.

Concerned members of the public spoke earlier to the board.

Jason James with the Bay Area Activist Coalition said, “Hillsborough County schools policies and practices continue to over rely on harsh school discipline,” which he said pushes kids out of the school system and into the criminal justice system.

Char Singleton with the Bay Area Activist Coalition and Tampa Dream Defenders said it was as much a teachers issue as much as a students one, and said they needed more training on conflict resolution.

Devon Cheeves added that the zero tolerance policies instituted by the district aren’t working, while Dipa Shah, another task force member, said the goal of the committee was  “to let the boys face their challenges and focus on getting the they need this education as a foundation to build their lives.”

School board members will flesh the recommendations y provided by the task force at a workshop on May 12.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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