9 Investigates: Race, punishment in Central Florida schools

By: Daralene Jones , Jason Kelly

Updated:

ORLANDO, Fla. - Black students in Central Florida are disciplined at a much higher rate than white students and other minorities, so districts are working to close the gap and reduce discipline among all students.

9 Investigates first reported on the disparity three years ago, and since that report, Channel 9 investigative reporter Daralene Jones learned that three school districts have adopted a national model known as restorative justice -- an approach in which victims and offenders go through a mediation process.

The shift requires major mindset adjustments for teachers and parents, but some advocates said that the model forces teachers to put up with inappropriate conduct simply to lower numbers.

A woman who asked to not be identified told Channel 9 that she enrolled her son at Positive Pathways Transition Center, Orange County Public Schools’ alternative school.

Interactive: Discipline according to race, total student populations in Central Florida

“This is my son's first offense, so I was really appalled,” she said. “He's an A/B student, (he) does sports outside of school, (he) goes to church; (a) good kid all around.”

Piedmont Lakes Middle School administrators suspended the eighth-grade student, who is African-American and Puerto Rican, over a fight that was described as a robbery. He was later expelled.

Channel 9 calculated the number of students disciplined by race based on the population of each group and learned that minorities -- especially blacks -- are punished at a much higher rate than whites in each of Central Florida’s nine school districts.

“School districts have been aware of the issue for a number of years,” said Deidre Garnes, of Seminole County Public Schools. “I think what we're seeing now is more of a concerted effort.”

Read: 9 Investigates: Are all students disciplined the same?

Three Seminole County middle schools will join some Volusia County schools in making that effort by incorporating the restorative justice approach. It's also in place at all Orange County middle schools.

Misbehaving students aren't automatically punished for a set number of days but are instead given the option to go through mediation in which they take responsibility for their actions and apologize to victimized peers or teachers.

“(The program is about) giving an opportunity for students to have dialogue prior to something occurring,” Garnes said.

The national model was first tested in New York, California and Colorado.

Read: Teachers disciplined after giving student ‘most likely to become a terrorist' certificate

“Restorative justice doesn't say we're not going to suspend,” said OCPS’ James Larsen. “Restorative justice says let's find out the impact of the decision you've made, so moving forward, we don't re-create those situations.”

Jones spent time discussing the issue with top administrators at Central Florida's nine school districts.

In the last year, Orange County has reported a 58 percent overall decrease in multiple suspensions among all students at schools where the program is in place. But it has taken time for the program to gain trust and buy-in from parents and teachers, who must dig deeper into their students' lives.

“I want to know what brought him to this situation, where he's been six times this school year,” Larsen said. “That's unacceptable.”

Read: Student disciplined for posting racist signs over high school water fountains

The woman whose son attends Positive Pathways Transition Center said that she fears the long-term consequences for her son because restorative justice wasn't the path chosen for her son, even though it’s an option according to the district’s student code of conduct.

Restorative justice is available in all Orange County middle schools, but the district said it's typically reserved for students who commit level-three offenses or below and for whom expulsion isn’t recommended.

Channel 9 is unable to obtain specific details about the boy’s case other than what the woman provided because student records are confidential.

The Seminole County school district said it plans to have teachers at three middle schools trained by December so restorative justice can be implemented next semester.

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