Saturday, April 21, 2018
Education

In move to reignite school desegregation case, plaintiffs say Pinellas has failed black students

Despite promises made 16 years ago to settle a Civil Rights-era desegregation lawsuit, the Pinellas County School Board still isn't spending enough money to ensure black children catch up to their peers in reading and math, the plaintiffs said Friday.

The allegation was one of 30 contained in a legal document delivered to the school district — the first step in a process that could land the 50-year-old case back in front of a federal judge.

Among the other allegations made by the plaintiffs in Bradley vs. Pinellas County School Board: The school system is falling down on commitments to give black children a safe place to go to school; failing to treat black children fairly in student discipline cases; failing to hire and keep black teachers; and failing to raise the numbers of black children enrolled in magnets and special programs.

FAILURE FACTORIES: How five once-average schools were turned into the worst in Florida

"The community's very angry, very, very upset, and what we have seen by the district over the last three years has been a hide-the-ball type strategy," said St. Petersburg lawyer Roger Plata, who represents the plaintiffs in the case. He added that the 2000 settlement agreement called for the school district to work together with the community "for the betterment of the students."

"And we haven't seen that," Plata said.

Lisa Wolf, a spokeswoman for the school district, said "Pinellas County Schools has received the filing. We will review it and respond appropriately." The district expects to respond in writing next week.

Maria Scruggs, president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP, called for Grego's resignation last month and said Friday she still believes he should step down.

Scruggs said Pinellas school leaders needed to at least acknowledge they had fallen down on the job. "It really has to start with the superintendent and board recognizing that they have failed to educate black children."

The allegations against the School Board echo the findings of "Failure Factories," a year-long investigation by the Tampa Bay Times that showed how the district abandoned integration efforts in 2007 and then broke promises of money and resources for elementary schools that became overwhelmingly poor and black.

St. Petersburg elementary schools Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose were failing at rates worse than almost any other schools in the state. The series found that experienced teachers fled after 2007 and new recruits were not trained to manage their classrooms.

Additionally, Times reporters found that black students in Pinellas were suspended out of school at four times the rate of other children — one of the largest disparities in Florida — under outdated discipline policies most other districts have abandoned. Meanwhile, the investigation found, black students are largely shut out of the school system's best campuses.

Plata previewed Friday's legal move at a community meeting in March, when he announced he would trigger the so-called "alternative dispute resolution" provision in the settlement agreement. The process calls for a period of informal negotiations between the district and the plaintiffs, followed by formal mediation and, if necessary, the appointment of a special overseer who can make recommendations to U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday.

Friday marked the second time in the past 20 years that plaintiffs in the desegregation case asked for help in enforcing the settlement agreement. Plata and attorney Enrique Escarraz first forced the district back into negotiations in 2006.

After initially working with mediator Peter Grilli, who worked on the case while it was still pending in federal court, the parties agreed to hammer out agreements on their own. Plata said Grilli might make another appearance as mediator in the case, if both sides agree to bring him on.

But that was under former superintendent Julie Janssen, who showed a willingness to work with the plaintiffs that they haven't necessarily seen from superintendent Mike Grego, Plata said. It's anybody's guess how the process will play out this time, he said.

In the wake of the "Failure Factories" investigation, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor called for a federal investigation of Pinellas County that prompted an ongoing review by the state Department of Education into how federal dollars for poor children have been spent.

Former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited Campbell Park in October, calling the situation at the five schools a "man-made disaster" and "education malpractice." In April, the federal education department opened a civil rights investigation into the school district.

Last month, federal and state officials visited Pinellas and found more than a dozen "areas of concern," according to a preliminary report obtained by the Times.

School Board members have been slow to take responsibility for problems in the schools. But the district has made some changes and hires to improve education for black children.

The board moved to reduce the number of days a student can be suspended out of school and to change a policy that docked suspended students a letter grade on assignments they completed while out on suspension. Pinellas is also looking to open centers where suspended students can receive instruction from classroom teachers.

Grego hired "turnaround" leader Antonio Burt to oversee improvement efforts and provide day-to-day guidance to principals in the five elementary schools. His recommendations have included an extended school day, increased pay of up to $25,000 for teachers at the five schools, and new recruitment and retention efforts.

Additionally, Grego is replacing the principals at four of the five schools.

Ricardo Davis, president of the Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students, known as COQEBS, said he "applauds" the plaintiffs in the Bradley case.

The School Board "simply refuses to change, they refuse to adapt, to give the children what they need," Davis said.

COQEBS is pursuing separate legal action at the state level against the School Board and is heading toward the mediation phase, he said.

"Hopefully we'll make progress. But if not, at least it's a precursor to going back to court."

Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] Contact Michael LaForgia at [email protected]

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