08/07/2012

Southern Poverty Law Center fights racial discrimination in Fla. schools

When 11-year-old J.B. was caught with a cell phone in class, the student received a five-day suspension.

The school district in Okaloosa County, Fla., meted out the harsh punishment because the incident was considered “inappropriate behavior.”

Ten-year-old S.D. was suspended multiple times during the 2010-11 school year for non-violent behavior. Though the young student has years of school ahead of him, the school district in Suwannee County, Fla., didn’t provide him with homework, nor the ability to make up the missed work.

In some Florida school districts, African-American students such as J.B. and S.D. often face harsh punishment at rates far higher than that of their white classmates. Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed civil rights complaints against several Florida school districts engaging in such discrimination.

The complaints, filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, describe how African-American students in the school districts in Escambia, Bay, Okaloosa, Flagler and Suwannee counties are suspended, expelled and arrested at school for relatively minor and non-violent conduct.

“Unforgiving disciplinary policies are cutting short the futures of countless African-American students across Florida and the entire nation,” said Stephanie Langer, a staff attorney for the SPLC’s Florida office. “If school districts truly want to provide a quality education to all of their students, they will reform these discriminatory policies.”

The school districts’ own annual reports to the Florida Department of Education demonstrate the discriminatory impact of their disciplinary policies:

  • In Escambia county schools, African-American students account for 65 percent of all out-of-school suspensions, but they represent only 36 percent of the student population.

  • In Okaloosa county schools, African-American students account for 24 percent of all out-of-school suspensions even though they make up only 12 percent of the student population.

  • In Bay county schools, African-American students account for 30 percent of all out-of-school suspensions even though they comprise only 15 percent of the student population.

  • In Suwannee county schools, African-American students account for 31 percent of all out-of-school suspensions, but represent only 14 percent of the student population.

  • In Flagler county schools, African-American students account for 31 percent of all out-of-school suspensions even though they are only 16 percent of the student population.

 

The complaints explain how the school districts have imposed long-term suspensions on children as young as 8 years old for minor rule infractions such as tardiness, inappropriate cell phone usage, talking in class and dress code violations.

The complaints also describe how the school districts fail to provide school principals with specific disciplinary guidelines and procedures. This grants principals the power to remove students from school for vague and often minor rule infractions.

Several cases described in the complaints illustrate how African-American children are punished more harshly and more frequently than white students:

  • M.C., an African-American student in Escambia County, was suspended and arrested for “trespassing” after purchasing a hot meal at a neighboring high school. Before this incident, M.C. had no history of discipline issues.

  • D.G., a 12-year-old African-American student in Bay County, received 23 days of out-of-school suspension during the 2011-12 school year for minor infractions such as chewing gum, “mouthing off” and talking in class.

  • L.H., an African-American student in Flagler County, was written up 19 times during the 2011-12 school year. Each instance was for minor, nonviolent misconduct.

 

Florida, like many states across the county, has amended its zero-tolerance discipline law to encourage schools to handle minor behavioral problems with in-school discipline rather than harsh policies that decrease a student’s time in the regular classroom.

While each district has changed its written policies, practices have not changed. Many school districts continue to suspend students for lengthy periods, send them to alternative schools, expel them or unnecessarily refer them to the juvenile justice system.

“Local school districts and state officials must make reforms that improve the effectiveness of school disciplinary policies without forcing children out of the classroom,” said Tania Galloni, managing attorney of the SPLC’s Florida office. “School discipline should never deprive a child of an education, but that is happening in these school districts. What was once considered minor misconduct has become an opportunity to punish or even criminalize a student's behavior.”