PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) _ Black children in five Florida school districts are suspended from school, arrested at school or given other punishments at a higher rate than other students, according to a federal civil rights complaint filed on Tuesday.
The Southern Poverty Law Center said the complaint, filed with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, was based on a year-long study of disciplinary actions taken by Florida School Districts.
“Many Florida School districts criminalize children for the most-minor, nonviolent infractions such as dress code violations and cell phone infractions that result in lengthy out-of-school suspensions, corporal punishment, school arrests and expulsions for children as young as eight and nine years old,” Stephanie Langer, an attorney for the center, said at a news conference. “African-American children across the nation and in the state of Florida are subjected to these unforgiving disciplinary measures at alarmingly higher rates than their white counterparts.”
Langer said the Bay, Escambia, Flagler, Okaloosa and Suwanee county school districts were found to be the worst offenders.
The complaint asks the federal government to investigate the districts and use its oversight to change the policies.
Malcolm Thomas, superintendent of the 40,000-student Escambia County School District, said the district will comply with all requests for information. But Thomas said his district does not base student discipline on race.
“I’d love to see zero suspensions, but that is not reality,” he said. “It’s not about race. If we discriminate, we discriminate against bad behavior. If you are getting in trouble, it’s not because of your color.”
According the study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, black students make up 36 percent of Escambia County School District’s population and 65 percent of out-of-school suspensions.
Thomas said he couldn’t verify the center’s numbers, but that school has reduced its overall number of out-of-school suspensions in recent years from 7,482 in 2007-2008 to 4,251 in the 2010-2011.
“We have a standard discipline for all students. If there are more black students who are suspended, it is because there are a disproportionate number of black students committing offenses.”
Flagler County School District attorney Kristy Gavin says her 13,000-student district is gathering documents to respond to the allegations and will cooperate with any requests for data from federal authorities. Gavin said she had not had time to review all of the allegations in the lengthy complaint, and could not comment about specific charges.
The study found that 16 percent of Flagler County’s students are black and 31 percent of all out-of-school suspensions are African-American.
The three other districts named in the complaint did not immediately respond to calls from The Associated Press.
The study by the civil rights group found that black students are 15 percent of Bay County’s student population and 30 percent of out-of-school suspensions, 12 percent of Okaloosa County School District’s study population and 12 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 14 percent of the Suwane County School District’s population with 31 percent of the out-of-school suspensions.
Jackie Brazzell’s son attends high school in Okaloosa County. Brazzell said he has been unfairly targeted by school officials.
“My son has been humiliated, traumatized by school officials. He’s been told he will never be an A student. My son is a regular, kind-hearted teenager who enjoys skateboarding and playing football. I’ve done everything I can to support him and his dream,” she said.