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Manatee County schools are fighting inequality in classrooms

Black Lives Matter protests are sparking changes within our schools.

MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. — Black Lives Matter. You’ve probably heard it a lot lately.

Protesters across Tampa Bay and all over the country are fighting for change.

“I’m proud to be black,” said China Smith. “There’s a lot going on obviously and there is definitely changes that need to be made but it needs to be the right changes.”

Smith is a mother of three and also works closely with students through the Police Athletic League of Manatee County. It’s a program where police officers and kids are working together to make a difference.

The Superintendent of Manatee County Schools, Cynthia Saunders, says she hears them loud and clear.

“I do want them to know that their lives do matter, their voices are being heard and I think Reverend (James) Golden said it best last night, ‘making a statement is one thing, putting action into place is another’ and that’s going to be our approach,” Saunders said.

ALSO: The need for bilingual teachers is growing in Manatee County

Her first plan of action is fighting inequality in classrooms. That starts with training all school staff and putting some new measures in place.

“Restorative justice and making sure that people are aware of not only their students’ needs, and the student sitting before them, but the day and time that we are in,” Saunders said.

She says there’s been discussion of expanding and emphasizing social and emotional learning programs to educate all students concerning interracial sensitivity and civility, cultural awareness and positive social interaction.

But Saunders says that’s not enough. The Manatee County School District is planning to adjust their disciplinary matrix to reduce out-of-school suspensions. She and the school board also hope to implement restorative practices as a tool to help end the school to prison pipeline.

Saunders is also making a promise to continue working with local law enforcement agencies and their school guardians to build bridges of communication and trust among the black and Hispanic student population.

“We will also ensure that the Florida Law Enforcement Academy at Manatee Technical College will review and evaluate their training practices to include appropriate restraining techniques and proper responses to violent encounters,” Saunders said.

She says it's going to take a collective effort and input from the community to achieve these changes, but she’s confident change is coming.

“I know we can do better,” Saunders said. “I know we can do more things to improve where we are."

This week the school board held a community meeting to discuss the changes to fight inequality in classrooms. Saunders says she will also be meeting with all the minority administrators next week.

"I want to get their input and I want them part of leading some of our subgroups so that they have a voice,” she said.

Saunders says some of these changes were already in the works but can’t deny that recent protests are becoming the driving force behind the conversation.

“Certainly, it brought some things to light and it makes it more apparent that changes need to be a little quicker and more forthcoming than what's been in the past,” Saunders said.

“Our kids make up 25 percent of the population, but they are a 100 percent the future,” Smith said. “Right now, more than ever it’s important how we teach, show and re-educate our kids so they can continue to grow and understand to make a difference and be that difference.”

Saunders says she committed to make that a reality in Manatee County Schools.

"We've said what we are going to stand for, we've said we are committed to change, we've said we are committed to listening and making improvements and we are going to start that right now,” Saunders said.

She says Manatee County’s population and demographics have changed drastically over the last 10 years; making all the more reason to reevaluate how the schools operate.

“When you look at the whole minority population it now exceeds the Caucasian population of students in Manatee County,” Saunders said. “We are about 48 percent white/Caucasian and minority is the other, so 52 percent.”

“It’s the right time,” Saunders said. “I think it was just a catalyst of events that occurred, but I do think that not only are you going to see things implemented in Manatee County but I think you are going to see it all over the state, all over the country.”

Pacso and Pinellas school districts has also told 10 Tampa Bay they’re also taking action.

Kurt Browning, superintendent of Pasco County Schools, announced the creation of the "District Equity Team.”

“We are creating a District Equity Team to examine the factors that contribute to inequitable outcomes, and to propose solutions,” Browning said.

He says this team will take the following actions:

  • Identify biases and behaviors that prevent consistent equitable, fair and respectful practices
  • Leverage relationships with national external partners to engage in improvement methods for equity
  • Set goals for achieving improved outcomes within our District Success Plan to address our equity challenges and measure the impact of our work
  • Provide equity focused professional learning to all stakeholders focused on deepening trust, developing diverse leaders, and building capacity for change.

"Our educational system can be the driver that eliminates inequalities, creates responsible citizens, and fosters positive relationships within our community,” Browning said.

In Pinellas County, Superintendent Michael Grego and the Pinellas County School Board released this statement on Facebook:

"We are steadfast in our commitment to the work of equity, restorative practices and the focus on increasing black student achievement through the implementation of our Bridging the Gap plan.

“We know there are no words that will ease the pain of people of color who experience injustice in their daily lives. As educators, we have the opportunity and responsibility to teach our young people to value themselves, and one another, and to stand up vigorously, yet peacefully, for what they believe in.”

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