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SPLC complaint sparks federal investigation into discriminatory police practices in Florida school district

Federal education officials have announced that they will investigate Florida’s Pinellas County Schools for subjecting black students and students with disabilities to disproportionate arrests and restraints such as pepper spray for common misbehavior – an investigation sparked by a civil rights complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights will investigate issues outlined in the complaint, which highlighted data showing that the district’s 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. Federal officials will also investigate other discipline practices in the district.

The agency announced the investigation in a letter dated Nov. 21. It can be viewed here. The SPLC filed its complaint on Aug. 31.

“The Department of Education’s decision to investigate is an encouraging step toward addressing troubling issues in Pinellas County Schools,” said Amir Whitaker, SPLC attorney. “The school district has simply handed over discipline to law enforcement when it comes to black students and students with disabilities. The results have been disastrous. Students like our clients now have criminal records and trauma from being pepper-sprayed for something as minor as a lunchroom scuffle.

“We hope the investigation will lead to meaningful reforms to protect children from being needlessly pushed out of school and into the justice system.”

Pinellas County Schools’ discipline practices, which were the subject of the documentary series America Divided, are marked by a stark racial disparity. Between 2010 and 2015, district students were arrested more than 3,800 times. Despite black students comprising less than 20 percent of Pinellas’ student population, they made up nearly 60 percent of all school-based arrests and 71 percent of disorderly conduct arrests during the 2014-15 school year, the most recent year for which data is available.

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

The most common charge in Pinellas County Schools is “disorderly conduct,” which can be as minor as talking back or knocking over a trash can. School officials have recently taken steps that resulted in a 25 percent drop in school arrests during the last school year – including promising to limit student arrests for disorderly conduct. The SPLC’s Pinellas County Report Card, which was published in partnership with the NAACP and The Micah Center, recommended the reform.

Despite the change, however, district schools continue to needlessly rely on arrest to discipline students. Many of the school board’s promised changes, including limiting disorderly conduct arrests, have not become policy.

“The school district has an obligation to end the discriminatory practices that scar vulnerable youths with criminal records for adolescent misbehavior,” Whitaker said. “Students should not have memories of their classmates being subjected to pepper spray.”

The SPLC complaint asks the Department of Education to compel the school district to revise its arrest policies and practices; restrict the use of chemical weapons on students; eliminate arrests for disorderly conduct; increase alternative, evidence-based programs, such as restorative justice, 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.