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Story from the field: Florida student feels hopeless, humiliated because of school’s punitive culture

An SPLC lawyer relates to a student who has been suspended repeatedly and segregated in a Florida school district where the SPLC is challenging the discriminatory treatment of African-American children.

“I don’t have rights,” the 15-year-old boy tells me.

His mother begins to sob uncontrollably. She sees the hopelessness in her son’s eyes.

Sammy* has been suspended so often for vague violations like “disruptive behavior” and “misconduct” that he’s missed more than 30 percent of the school year. He’s one of thousands of students we represent in class action complaints challenging racial inequality in five Florida school districts.

The suspensions have taken away his enthusiasm for learning and made him and his family feel powerless.

I can’t blame him for feeling this way. I’ve been there myself.

Because of instability in my home, I attended seven different schools by the time I reached middle school. One of my earliest memories of school was being suspended in the first grade because I wrote an improper word on my homework. After missing a full week, I spent the rest of the year trying to catch up. This led to more behavioral problems and suspensions.

My first year in high school, I failed nearly all my classes. Because I was deprived repeatedly of my right to an education through suspension and received no positive reinforcement at home, I lost in school. I had more than 50 absences that year. Some days I preferred to stay home instead of spending an hour outside my school waiting for 1,500 students to go through metal detectors.

Finally, by the third year of high school, I was expelled and had to attend an alternative school. I’ll never forget how devastating it was. Combined with frequent moves between family members because both my parents were incarcerated, my school kicking me out made me feel worthless and unwanted. I felt thrown away, left for dead and given up on.

The alternative school was simply a warehouse for troubled kids before they drop out. After two days of classes that were years below my level, with ancient books the regular high school no longer saw fit to use, I dropped out. The degradation by the school pushed me to the point that I no longer felt welcomed.

So, as one formerly troubled African-American kid to another, I can relate to Sammy.

He describes the humiliation of being segregated with the “bad kids” in portable classrooms in a distant corner of his high school. He’s forced to eat lunch in his aluminum-crate classroom because he’s forbidden from other parts of campus and restricted from interacting with 95 percent of the other students. He is not allowed to take elective courses, and if he dares to stay after school for a club meeting or football game, he’ll be arrested for trespassing.

For him, school is a place where he is treated like a criminal. It has become a ritual for him to be searched by police officers on campus; his hands are sniffed for the scent of marijuana.

But he doesn’t deserve all of the blame.

Many school districts are adopting incredibly harsh disciplinary policies that needlessly push children out of school and into the criminal justice system, primarily for minor, nonviolent misbehavior. This phenomena is commonly referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

In Sammy’s district, black children comprise just 15 percent of the student population – yet account for nearly half of all expulsions.

Three years ago, we filed a federal complaint with the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) alleging discriminatory treatment of African-American children in Sammy’s district and four other school districts throughout Florida.

The DOE has been investigating the districts ever since.

Overly punitive discipline, particularly for black children, is a serious problem across Florida. More children are arrested in school here than in any other state. It has created a culture of intolerance for youthful behavior that takes Florida children out of the classroom for millions of hours every year.

In Escambia County, black children make up 35 percent of the student population but 92 percent of arrests for dubious misdemeanors like “disorderly conduct.” In Bay County, black students are 15 percent of the population but half of the arrests in the school. Both are among the districts where we filed complaints. 

In these districts, students are missing tests and failing classes because they are at home under suspension. All because they forgot to wear a belt to school or didn’t have a hall pass? 

It’s not fair and not smart.

I’ve advised many of our clients like Sammy to stay in school despite their feelings of shame, resentment and alienation. I use my own story of getting back in school after dropping out and, last year, completing my fifth college degree. Many find it hard to believe that “Dr. Amir Whitaker Esq.” was once given up on by his school. 

But the adults who operate our school systems need to do some soul-searching as well. We can’t keep giving up on children like Sammy. We can’t keep building more prisons to hold the dropouts from our underfunded, overly punitive schools. There’s a better, smarter way. 

* Sammy is not his real name.


Amir Whitaker is a recent law school graduate and a lawyer in the SPLC’s Florida office.