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Federal agency plans visits to Hillsborough as discrimination inquiry continues

Retired educator Marilyn Williams filed a complaint that triggered the inquiry by the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Education Department.
Retired educator Marilyn Williams filed a complaint that triggered the inquiry by the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Education Department.
Published Jun. 6, 2015

TAMPA — An ongoing federal investigation into racial disparities in the Hillsborough County public school system will enter a new phase when the next school year starts.

Representatives from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights will come to the county after classes resume in August, senior attorney Philip Weltner wrote in a recent email to the district. They also will visit schools to interview students and staff, said Marilyn Williams, the retired educator who filed a complaint that triggered the investigation and has spoken to Weltner.

The civil rights office has confirmed to the Tampa Bay Times that it is responding to two of the allegations Williams made in her 2014 complaint: overly harsh discipline of African-American students and denying students at high-poverty schools, which have large black populations, access to experienced teachers. But the agency said it could not disclose details about the case.

Williams also claimed that the district discriminates by using teacher training materials by author Ruby Payne, who writes that a culture of poverty causes some children to act differently than others. Payne's work "promotes a deficit ideology" that blames low-income students when they do not progress in school, Williams wrote. The federal agency did not confirm it is interested in the Payne training.

The agency did, however, ask the district for a large amount of statistics last summer. Without acknowledging any wrongdoing, Hillsborough turned over numerous volumes about school staffing and about training on student behavior, and three years of suspension and expulsion data broken down by school and race.

Williams said she looks forward to the visit. "My hope is that once they come back with facts that they can put on the table, these facts will help us make the connections and the links to determine what the problem is."

The data on discipline suggests there is bias, Williams said, "unless you want to say that these kids are just worse than any other students."

Separately, a district task force on minority student discipline wrapped up more than a year's work this spring with recommendations that include a student bill of rights. The School Board will discuss the task force ideas at a workshop June 16.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.