A lawsuit charging Pinellas County Schools with failing to educate black children was granted class-action status Thursday.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge James Case made the ruling in a case filed nearly four years ago on behalf of William Crowley, who is black, and his son Akwete Osoka, then a second-grader at Sawgrass Lake Elementary School.
The decision means the suit now represents all 21,000 black students in Pinellas and all black children who attend the county's public schools in the future.
"The court has taken a giant step," said the plaintiffs' lead attorney, Guy Burns of Tampa.
Superintendent Howard Hinesley and School Board attorney John Bowen could not be reached for comment late Thursday. School Board Chairwoman Jane Gallucci said she could not comment without conferring with Bowen.
"I wasn't fully aware that it was still floating around," she said.
The families of all black Pinellas students are expected to be sent notices about the lawsuit, and Case will consider a specific plan for that notification within 45 days.
The suit says the district has failed to narrow a yawning achievement gap between black and white students, in violation of the equal protection clause in the state Constitution. It asks the district to craft a solution.
The suit was announced at an October 2000 news conference with several community leaders, including Omali Yeshitela, head of the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement. Its filing came just a week after U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday approved a settlement between the school district and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, declaring schools free of discrimination and ending a 36-year federal lawsuit that required cross-county busing for desegregation and race ratios in schools. The district, now headed into its second full year of a new school choice system, also pledged in the settlement to address black student achievement.
With the Crowley suit "it appears we're trying to re-litigate the same thing, only this time couched in state court," Bowen said at the time.
Lawyers for the school district also have argued that the lawsuit should not be granted class-action status because the circumstances of each child's success or failure can be different. But Case rejected that argument, concluding the plaintiffs are arguing that the system has failed to meet its constitutional duty to provide a "high-quality" education to black students.
"Although individual cases reinforce the statistical data, it is the system as a whole that is being challenged, not how that system has dealt with a particular student on an individual basis," the judge wrote.
Case wrote in his order that the plaintiffs "have cited an overabundance of statistical evidence indicating that black students are achieving far below white students in every category and are receiving statistically significantly more discipline referrals than their white counter-parts."
A hearing is likely within a few months.