By Richard Danielson, Times staff writer
In print: Thursday, October 2, 2008
TAMPA — Even in kindergarten, R.J. struggled in school, saying he often felt like a "bad boy" who was "dumb."
His problems included behavioral or emotional disabilities, frustration at not keeping up with classmates and a lack of coping skills.
Within two years, he was suspended regularly for being disruptive. But an advocacy group says Hillsborough schools failed to give him adequate counseling and support.
Now three civil rights groups say that kind of missed opportunity deprives R.J. and students like him of the chance to learn.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, the Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities and the NAACP filed a 20-page complaint Wednesday with the state Department of Education over Hillsborough's treatment of students with emotional and behavioral disabilities.
"These students are being tragically shortchanged by the school district," said Marlene Sallo, a Tampa-based attorney for the Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities.
The complaint asks the state to force Hillsborough to transform a "culture of neglect and overly harsh discipline" that puts students with disabilities on a path to jail and prison.
Hillsborough schools referred 1,881 students to the juvenile justice system, mostly for minor offenses, in 2006-07.
That's the most in the state, though Hillsborough's percentage of school-related delinquency referrals tracked the state average, according to the complaint.
Punishing students with disabilities instead of providing them with services that promote positive behavior "appears to occur more frequently with students of color," according to the complaint.
"This breakdown in our schools has put children of color particularly at risk," said Pat Spencer, the NAACP's director for the area covered by chapters in Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando, St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
In response, school spokesman Stephen Hegarty said the district has worked with the NAACP and agrees that in the past it too often referred troublesome students to law enforcement.
Hillsborough's number of referrals to law enforcement for 2006-07 was down 20 percent from the previous year. That, Hegarty said, resulted from work school officials did to reduce referrals, especially for matters like trespassing, disorderly conduct and mischief.
Hegarty said the district is ready to consider the concerns raised by the civil rights groups.
"Now that we have (the complaint) we're going to take it and look at these cases on an individual basis," he said.
The groups also say the school district isolates students with disabilities through discipline. Disabled students in Hillsborough are 2 1/2 times as likely to lose as least 10 days of school to suspensions or expulsions as other students, they say.
But a veteran of two schools with exceptional student education programs says administrators often mainstream students with behavioral disabilities into regular settings.
"We really believe that every student begins in the least restrictive environment," said Joyce Wieland, a former principal and the district's director for exceptional student education.
It is through later assessment and discussion involving both school administrators and parents that placements change.
"Each student is seen as an individual, and we want all children to learn," Wieland said.
The civil rights groups want Hillsborough administrators to hire a nationally recognized expert to help develop a training program emphasizing positive ways to support students with disabilities.
Similar complaints have been filed against Palm Beach County, as well as in Louisiana and Mississippi.
"This problem is not limited to Palm Beach and Hillsborough," said Brandi Davis, a lawyer from the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. "This is a state and national problem."
Richard Danielson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 269-5311.