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Pinellas school contract with police agencies raises concerns

Civil rights attorneys fear the new agreement would strip students of protections from over-policing.
Pinellas School Board member Caprice Edmond, seen here while campaigning last year, is pressing the district to take a closer look at its contract with local police agencies.
Pinellas School Board member Caprice Edmond, seen here while campaigning last year, is pressing the district to take a closer look at its contract with local police agencies. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Feb. 5
Updated Feb. 8

Attorneys and civil rights leaders are scrutinizing an agreement between the Pinellas County school system and 13 local police agencies, saying officials pushed it through without adequate notice or input from the community.

In a letter Thursday, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said it was “dismayed” that the school district and the agencies “quietly negotiated the proposed agreement without the input of parents and students and with scarcely any input from educators.”

The agencies, which include the school district’s own police department, are tasked with maintaining order and safety in a school system that serves almost 100,000 students across more than 150 locations.

The district also is governed by consent orders stemming from a 1964 class action lawsuit to desegregate the schools.

A new police agency agreement, replacing prior agreements from 2006 and 2014, was included on the School Board’s Jan. 12 meeting agenda. But newly elected board member Caprice Edmond said the matter needed more input from the community.

Related: Read the proposed policing agreement here.

Based on those concerns, the administration pulled the item and scheduled a one-hour community meeting Thursday, over Zoom, to discuss it.

The Pinellas School District hosted a Zoom meeting to discuss its new agreement with law enforcement agencies that patrol the schools. [Pinellas County Schools]
The Pinellas School District hosted a Zoom meeting to discuss its new agreement with law enforcement agencies that patrol the schools. [Pinellas County Schools]

Attorneys for the Legal Defense Fund are concerned that the new agreement does not include protections that were in the prior agreements against criminalizing minor behavioral infractions or having police question children without their parents present.

District leaders insisted at the meeting that they do not wish to see children arrested for misbehavior, and that they are simply trying to comply with a new body of state law concerning campus safety.

NAACP St. Petersburg branch president Esther Eugene said that, had the item not been pulled, “this would have been voted on and this would have been issued out and the community would have been blind to it, and that’s not how things should be done.”

And the attorneys said that, although there was a notice on the district website, the district did not take other steps it could have to publicize the event — for example, robocalls to parents.

District leaders came prepared with a PowerPoint presentation that shows student arrests have decreased from 633 in the 2013-14 school year to 273 in the last school year, a number that was clearly affected by the fact that schools were closed from March through June. However, they said, there have been only 56 arrests in the current school year. And a study showed that Pinellas leads the state in pre-arrest diversions.

“Of course, one arrest is too many,” said Luke Williams, chief of the Pinellas County Schools Police Department since 2018.

Some at the virtual meeting said the data should have been broken down by race. According to Trenia Cox, who serves on a district committee that monitors compliance with the court settlement, African American students account for 19 percent of the district’s enrollment, but close to 67 percent of arrests.

“The disparity is great and wide and still demands our attention,” Cox said. Williams agreed, saying several times that “there still is work to be done.”

District leaders said they reworded the agreement to comply with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act, which seeks to prevent tragedies such as the mass shootings in Parkland on Feb. 14, 2018. As part of that process, officials are required to document and communicate about school-based incidents so potential threats are not overlooked.

Williams insisted that the increased communication does not translate into a desire to increase arrests. “There’s not a school resource officer that goes to school that looks to arrest a child on any given day,” he said.

Nor, he added, is there any real significance to the removal of a statement in the prior agreement that zero tolerance policies should not be applied rigorously applied to minor offenses.

“We are not looking at zero tolerance,” he said. “Although the language may have changed, the spirit is still there.”

On the matter of students questioned without their parents, he said the current system requires students to have a representative if possible, either a parent or guardian, or a member of school staff. In the years since he has been on the job, he said, he knows of only one time when that did not happen.

District leaders are now asking anyone with concerns about the new agreement to notify them, by email, at publiccomment@pcsb.org. before Feb. 12. Once those revisions have been considered, the agreement will return the School Board for a future vote.

“I’m hopeful that people will provide their recommendations in writing so that they can be considered,” Edmond said Friday.