ST. PETERSBURG — Black students in the Pinellas County School District are failing at higher rates than black children in virtually any other school district in Florida.
On Thursday, some of the county's black activists called on the School Board to take responsibility for the failure.
Speaking to a crowd of about 100 parents, grandparents, community members and school employees, they said they had heard a lot of talk without seeing a lot of change.
"At what point does the School Board and the superintendent take the responsibility," said Ricardo Davis, president of Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students, known as COQEBS.
Goliath Davis, the former police chief and deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, said the school district has become adept at "spin control."
Their comments came during a public forum Thursday at Bethel Community Baptist Church in which four panelists discussed a new "report card" from the Southern Poverty Law Center that painted a grim portrait of black student achievement in Pinellas County.
It found that black students were disciplined more harshly than their classmates and were twice as likely to drop out of school as white students.
At times, Thursday's event was emotional and heated.
Deveron Gibbons, a member of the board of trustees at St. Petersburg College, said that he blamed the school system for the recent shooting deaths of black children because they should have been in school.
"That could easily have been my son," he said.
Chris Warren, a 35-year-old father of one, said it wouldn't make a difference to talk to school officials.
"There's no point in pointing your finger at a school district for 30 years that you know doesn't have our best interests at heart," he said.
Amir Whitaker, of the Alabama-based nonprofit Law Center, said during the discussion that black students are underrepresented in gifted classes, but overrepresented in school-based arrests and out-of-school suspensions. More Pinellas students are arrested for disorderly conduct than in seven local counties combined, including Hillsborough County.
The Law Center said that "unnecessary school-based arrests, suspensions and expulsions … are part of the school-to-prison pipeline that cuts short a child's education and increases the likelihood of incarceration."
The report card echoes what the Tampa Bay Times found in a yearlong investigation, "Failure Factories," which showed how the district abandoned integration efforts in 2007 and then failed to follow through with promised resources for five elementary schools that became predominantly poor and black.
The series also has detailed how violence and disruption in the schools soared and experienced teachers fled after 2007. This month, the fourth installment showed how black students in Pinellas County are suspended out of school at four times the rate of other children — one of the widest disparities in Florida.
Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego, who was given an opportunity to respond Thursday, said that there was progress being made that needed to be recognized.
"The fact is that we're moving in the right direction," he said.
Grego, who was hired in 2012, has provided the five elementary schools with additional money and resources, including classroom aides and mental health counselors. He has stepped up credit recovery options for students, which has contributed to an increase in the graduation rate for all students.
Last year, about 61 percent of black students graduated high school, which was below the state average but an improvement over past years.
Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at [email protected]