Associated Press

PENSACOLA — 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 recently filed federal civil rights complaint.

The Southern Poverty Law Center said the complaint, filed with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, was based on a yearlong study of disciplinary actions taken by the state’s 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 8 and 9 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,” she said.

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. He said his district does not base student discipline on race.

“I’d love to see zero suspensions but that is not reality,” Thomas 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 to the study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, black students make up 36 percent of Escambia County School District’s population but 65 percent of out-of-school suspensions.

Thomas said he couldn’t verify the center’s numbers but that the district had reduced its overall number of out-of-school suspensions in recent years from 7,482 in 2007-08 to 4,251 in the 2010-11.

“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,” Thomas said.

Flagler County School District attorney Kristy Gavin said her 13,000-student district is gathering documents to respond to the allegations and will cooperate with any requests from federal authorities for data. 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 but 31 percent of all out-of-school suspensions are of African Americans.

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 but 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, but 31 percent of the out-of-school suspensions.

Jackie Brazzell, whose son attends high school in Okaloosa County, 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.

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