A federal civil rights complaint filed Tuesday against Flagler County schools alleges that “vague” and “ambiguous” disciplinary procedures lead to more suspensions and expulsions of black students compared to white students.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit civil rights organization “dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry” founded in 1971, filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights against Flagler County and four other school districts in Florida (Bay, Escambia, Okaloosa and Suwannee).
According to the report, black students are also retained, arrested at school and expelled more often than their white peers.
“By implementing vague and ambiguous disciplinary procedures, (the Flagler County School District) maintains an educational environment that is hostile to African American children and deprives those students of equal access to educational benefits and opportunities,” the report states. “These procedures are in direct violation of not only federal law, but also the vision and mission statements of (Flagler schools). The actions and inactions of (Flagler schools), as described in this complaint, disparately impact African American students in violation of the regulations promulgated pursuant to Title VI.”
The complaints against five Florida school districts were announced Tuesday at a news conference in Pensacola.
They were the result of a yearlong investigation into school discipline procedures, said Stephanie Langer, staff attorney in Southern Poverty Law Center’s Florida office.
Langer said two other similar complaints have been filed in the past. One similar to the complaint against Flagler was filed against the Jefferson County School District, in Kentucky. That case is currently open and pending, Langer said. The other was in 2009 in West Palm Beach. That lawsuit has been settled, and positive results are being seen, Langer said, adding that more students are remaining in the classroom — the ultimate goal.
The Flagler complaint specifically highlights three black Flagler County students between 14 and 16 years old. All three students faced multiple disciplinary actions for repeated tardiness, violating the dress code, being “rude and disrespectful” and engaging in public displays of affection.
The case of one complainant was a 14-year-old student in eighth grade at Indian Trails Middle School during the 2011-2012 school year. During the school year, the student was written up 19 times and served 15 days of out-of-school suspension.
On May 18, 2012, the student was referred to the office and written up for being tardy. Once in the office, the student was further written up for causing a “major disruption.” The referral form indicates that the student was “argumentative, defiant and non-compliant with office staff and administrators.” As a result of the discipline, the student was out of class from May 18 through May 28.
Another complainant was a 16-year-old black student and sophomore during the 2011-2012 school year at Pathways Academy, the school’s alternative high school. The student was expelled from the school district in May 2011. According to the complaint, students at Pathways are subjected to more stringent disciplinary procedures and are required to sign a behavior contract. The students are required to stay at the alternative school for a minimum of 45 days. This student, according to the complaint, was at Pathways for the remainder of the 2011-2012 school year, and “despite his success, lack of behavioral referrals and consistent attendances,” the district failed to consider transitioning the student back to his home school.
He will be promoted to a junior this upcoming school year; however, it’s unknown if he’ll remain at Pathways are go back to his home high school when school resumes next week, the complaint states.
The third complainant, a 14-year-old in the eighth grade at Indian Trials Middle School, was written up 19 times for minor misconduct.
On Jan. 19, 2011, the student was referred to the office by the teacher for classroom disruption. The student was calling out in class and making noise, according to the complaint. As a result, the student was removed from class and received one day of in-school suspension.
Jacob Oliva, assistant superintendent, said that part of the concern from the Southern Poverty Law Center is that there were problems in all 67 districts, and they chose these five, including Flagler, to be targets.
Langer didn’t dispute that Flagler might not have been worse than others in the state.
“It’s all bad — agreed,” she said. “The entire state is bad.”
According to Langer, the Southern Poverty Law Center “probably” could file a complaint against every county.
But Langer called Flagler’s numbers “very surprising.”
“We found such interesting things in Flagler that we couldn’t understand,” she said, adding that about 69% of the students expelled in Flagler are black. Meanwhile, black students make up about 16% of the student population. “That number for us was shocking,” Langer added.
Oliva said the district will work to examine the allegations. “We want to meet the needs of all of our students, and it if it’s a community issue, if it’s a lack of understanding on how to promote curriculum to minority students, we’re going to find ways to do better,” he said.
Still, Kristy Gavin, Flagler schools attorney, said the Flagler County school district doesn’t have one set of procedures for white, Hispanic, Asian students and different protocol for African Americans.
“The procedures apply to all students,” she said.
The report also points out disparities in the classroom.
During the 2009-2010 school year, no black students were enrolled in any Advanced Placement science classes. In addition, only 35 black students took one AP class, according to the complaint.
The Southern Poverty Law Center got its statistics from annual reports submitted by the school district to the Florida Department of Education. Those reports demonstrate the discriminatory impact of their disciplinary policies, according to the agency.
Gavin said the statistics in the complaint are something that would cause anyone, including the staff and the district, to have some concern. But Gavin said the district needs to check the validity of them. Gavin said the Southern Poverty Law Center has declined to meet with the school district on more than one occasion.
But, Langer pointed out: “We are there because (parents) called and asked us to be there. We didn’t pull numbers first then go find people second. We found people first and verified what people are saying to us, and what we found was surprising.”
The ultimate goal, Langer said, is to get school administrators, School Board members, students and families into the discussion to fix the disparity problems for the long term.
“We’re not looking for a long, drawn-out litigation process; we’re not looking for money,” she said. “We want to work these things out because when we see changes made ... It really does help all the students, not just the black students.”
Oliva said the school district doesn’t want to suspend students if it doesn’t have to. Making every student successful is the goal, he said.
“The bottom line is you have to find out what motivates the kids,” Oliva said. “If you can find out what motivates them, they’re going to succeed."
Stephen Hinson, the new principal at Buddy Taylor Middle School, said educators are ethical and are in the profession to impact students' lives.
“Most teachers think of the kids as their children,” Hinson said. “That’s the kind of ownership they take on. We go home with this, knowing we have personal relationships with these kids.”
— Brian McMillan contributed to this report.