Feds will investigate allegation that Hillsborough district shortchanges black students

Published June 25, 2014

TAMPA — The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights has asked the Hillsborough County school district 42 questions based on an allegation that it is shortchanging minority students.

The complaint, filed by retired educator Marilyn Williams, is not unlike others that are being filed around the country, leading to what amounts to a nationwide review, said superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

According to a letter from the federal agency, Williams is alleging the district discriminates against black students by subjecting them to harsher discipline than white students, and denies students in lower-income schools, which are predominantly black, access to experienced teachers.

While the federal agency has asked Hillsborough to answer all 42 questions within 15 days, officials will ask for more time because of the volume of information the answers require, Elia said. "It's very extensive and we want to make sure we give the most updated information," Elia told the School Board Tuesday.

The investigators want copies of disciplinary policies and detailed information on how they are carried out, criteria for referring a student for discipline, and examples of positive behavior programs. They want to know about staff training, use of school resource officers and details about record keeping.

Board members asked for updates on this case, and another open case with the same federal agency concerning Hillsborough's record on protecting students against sexual harassment.

The Tampa Bay Times reported this month that, judging by the latest student climate survey, only 42 percent of middle and high school students feel they are getting enough instruction on how to respond to sexually inappropriate behavior. This answer came in spite of a 2011 agreement with the civil rights office that called for extensive training and a yearly survey to make sure it is effective.

Elia said in future board meetings she will clarify steps the district already takes to combat sexual harassment and bullying, which were not covered in the news article. She also said it might be time to take a closer look at the survey, which asked only one question about sexual harassment. "Our plan is to try to get that to students and ask them, if they saw that question, what were they thinking about?" she said. "Because we're not sure that the question exactly is asked in a way that gets to that issue."

Reach Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or