ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Thousands fewer Orange County Public School students are being kicked off campus as a form of discipline and district leaders say the drop in out-of-school suspensions and expulsions is no accident.
The outgoing school board chair told 9 Investigates that there was a district-wide shift in how student disruptions are handled. Frustrated teachers claim discipline referrals were being denied.
The dramatic drop in out-of-school suspensions happened at the same time the district started doing a second-level review of all suspension referrals. Some accuse administrators of trying to skew the numbers.
In September, police said 17-year-old Keldon Lewis shot at a classmate, 17-year-old Keyrontae Harrell outside Apopka High School while Harrell's ex-girlfriend, Zari Gant, was driving away from him. Investigators said Harrell fired first during the shootout, which happened after the teens had been dismissed for the day. Investigators believe the guns used were inside cars that were parked on campus all day.
Just a few months before the shootout, Harrell was arrested on school grounds for a fight. He was facing charges of battery on a law enforcement officer, but police say he was given pre-trial diversion instead.
Apopka Police Deputy Chief Randy Fernandez says his department asked Orange County Public Schools to expel Harrell after the April incident.
“We knew the danger we were dealing with, and we were summarily dismissed,” Fernandez said.
9 Investigates uncovered thousands fewer students are being kicked off of Orange County campuses. The most recent numbers reflect the 2016/2017 school year, and show an approximate 5,000 count drop in out-of-school suspensions, and about half as many expulsions as the two years prior.
“That wasn't by happenstance or by accident. There has been a real movement to reduce out-of-school suspensions,” outgoing Orange County School Board Chair Bill Sublette said.
Sublette points to a multi-faceted approach by the district to shift the numbers. Four years ago, the district launched the Restorative Justice program, which is aimed at rehabilitating disruptive behaviors. Then, in October 2016, the district started requiring a second review of all out-of-school suspensions in order to inspect who is being suspended and why. The goal is to ensure that discipline is consistent and fair, based on the OCPS Code of Conduct.
“We had a disproportionate number of our minority students, and our poorer students, in particular, being given out-of-school suspensions,” Sublette explained.
Despite those changes, when you break down the student discipline by race in Orange County, not much has changed. Minorities still accounted for 84 percent of in-school suspensions in the 2016/2017 school year, which is the same percentage as the two prior years. Minority out-of-school suspensions were at 86 percent, which is a 2 percent drop from the 2015/2016 school year.
Still, police question if students were removed from schools after incidents like fighting, if that could help prevent even more dangerous situations.
“We need to look at the gravity of what's happening in our schools, and have an open, honest conversation about what's going on,” Fernandez said.
Superintendent Barbara Jenkins declined an on-camera interview for this story, but a district spokesperson said in a statement:
"Orange County Public Schools is committed to educating all students. In an effort to decrease out-of-school suspensions, the district implemented the Restorative Justice program with the purpose of creating a school culture that focuses on relationships, problem-solving and empowering change and growth while keeping students in the classroom. Also in October 2016, a secondary review of student disciplinary actions was implemented for the purpose of creating consistency and equity throughout the district while reducing the number of suspensions. We are proud that our teacher retention rates have increased over the prior year and are among the highest in the nation when compared to other urban districts. We will continue to work with teachers on the best strategies to teach 213,000 Orange County children."
Apopka High School is in OCPS’ District 7, of which the school board seat is up for grabs in the November election. Both candidates, Melissa Byrd and Eric Schwalbach, spoke to 9 Investigates about the trend in discipline.
“It seems there has been a trend to kind of back off the enforcement of discipline a little bit. I think what I’ve seen when I’m in the classroom substituting is more of the behaviors you don’t want that disrupt the classroom,” Byrd said. “I’ve talked to a lot of teachers, and a lot of teachers have told me they’re frustrated by not feeling supported.”
Schwalbach currently teaches at another local district, but he worked in Orange County for many years. “Everything is a numbers game when you get to a big district like this,” he said. “If kids aren’t getting in trouble for what I consider a speedbump violation, they’re just going to go faster and faster. If their first referral is a Level 3, you’ve got a problem.”
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