Skip to main content

SPLC files federal complaint over discriminatory police practices in Pinellas County, Florida, schools

The SPLC today announced a federal civil rights complaint against Pinellas County Schools (PCS) in Florida for subjecting black students and students with disabilities to disproportionate arrests and restraints such as pepper spray for common misbehavior.

The complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), describes how the district’s reliance on law enforcement officials to discipline students has resulted in widespread discrimination.

Black students are nearly four times as likely to be arrested as white students. Students with disabilities are nearly three times as likely to be referred to law enforcement as students without disabilities.

“Pinellas County Schools delegates student discipline to law enforcement when it comes to marginalized students,” said Amir Whitaker, SPLC attorney. “The police practices endanger the lives and futures of students by subjecting them to excessive force and saddling them with criminal records for adolescent misbehavior. We’re urging the federal government to take action to protect students.”

Students were arrested more than 3,800 times in the five school years between 2010 to 2015.

In June 2014, PCS entered an interagency agreement with law enforcement agencies to encourage fewer law enforcement referrals. Even so, during the following school year, 72 percent of Florida school districts arrested students less frequently than PCS, the complaint states.

The likelihood of some students being arrested for disorderly conduct, the most common charge, also increased after PCS’s 2014 agreement. A total of 939 arrests for the offense occurred between 2010 and 2015. The charge is typically given for school fights that don’t result in serious injury. Pinellas students are more than 20 times as likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct as students in Miami-Dade Public Schools, the district reporting the most fights reported in the state.

While black students represent about 19 percent of Pinellas students, they made up nearly 60 percent of all school-based arrests, and 71 percent of PCS’s disorderly conduct arrests in 2014-15. In at least 19 schools, at least 80 percent of students arrested were black.

The disparity is even greater at Richard L. Sanders, a school that exclusively serves students with disabilities. During the 2014-15 school year, the school had one of the highest arrest rates in Florida – a rate that was 58 times the state average. Black students made up 93 percent of the arrests.

The complaint recounts the story of two male honor roll students at Richard L. Sanders who were arrested in 2016 after trying to stop another male student from attacking their female friend. Instead of using de-escalation measures, the responding officer pepper-sprayed one student and charged both with disorderly conduct. The charges were later dismissed, but the incident left them with a criminal arrest record.

According to the complaint, restraints such as pepper spray are used frequently on students with disabilities. Arrest affidavits demonstrate the “frequent use of pepper spray on students with behavioral problems for simply talking back to police officers, or to break up school fights.” In one student’s case, he never received medical treatment for injuries resulting from the pepper spray.

The SPLC is asking the OCR and the DOJ to investigate and compel Pinellas County Schools to revise its arrest policies and practices. The organization also urges the federal agencies to restrict the use of chemical weapons on students; eliminate arrests for disorderly conduct; increase alternative, evidence-based programs to reduce arrests and address disproportionality; train school-based officers on bias education and adolescent development; and better track and monitor all police-involved incidents on school campuses.